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Running dynasty: Saugus girls win third straight CIF State title

Saugus wins third straight CIF State title

Posted: November 30, 2008 8:53 p.m.
Updated: December 1, 2008 4:55 a.m.

The Saugus girls cross country team after winning their third straight CIF State Division II Girls Cross Country Championship. Top row, from left to right: Assistant coach Kathryn Nelson, Karis Frankian, Stephanie Bulder, Amber Murakami, head coach Rene Paragas. Bottom row, left to right: team captain Keri Molt, Brianna Jauregui, Anne Randall, s...

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FRESNO - For the third straight year, they made the trek - an incredible feat within itself.

After roster changes and two straight years where the team's top runner graduated, the Saugus High School girls cross country team arrived on a foggy, overcast Saturday morning at Fresno's Woodward Park seeking its third consecutive state title.

It's truly remarkable that a team made up of different faces can dominate its league and its section, let alone an entire state.

But that's exactly what the Centurions has done three years in a row.

There are four reasons for the success - talent, coaching, leadership and dedication.

An hour before the Saugus cross country team would race for a third straight California crown, final preparations were being made.

A group of people surrounded the Centurions' blue tent 150 yards from the finish line.

The bridge to the first Saugus state cross country championship in 2006, Shannon Murakami, stood by.

Gene Blankenship, the man who coached the Hart High boys cross country team to three state titles in 1990, 1991 and 1992, stood by as support with parents and Saugus administrators.

An anxious Rene Paragas, the Saugus head coach who ran for Blankenship, also stood by.

Then there were the girls, just hanging loose.

In roughly a 100-square-foot box stood all the reasons why Saugus girls cross country has become arguably this valley's greatest sports dynasty.

Now people want to be nearby and see the success firsthand.

Blankenship led the Indians program from 1982 to 1993. During the latter part of that tenure, Paragas ran for him.

Some 15 years later, Blankenship made the flight south from his home in Spokane, Wash., to watch the Centurions make their run at history.

He is an assistant coach at West Valley High in Spokane.

But he now learns from Paragas.

Like the methods Paragas uses, such as steady-paced running.

Like not being afraid to test his girls' limits.

Murakami was tested.

"We had disagreements," Murakami admitted. "But honestly, I couldn't have been where I was without him."

Where she was in 2005 was at the pinnacle of the state - winning the Division I State Individual Cross Country title as a junior. The year prior, she said, the team was just satisfied to make it past the CIF-Southern Section preliminaries.

And in 2006, Paragas and Saugus struck gold by winning their first state team title. Paragas, who began coaching the girls in 2005, deflects a lot of the success onto assistant coach Kathryn Nelson. With more than 100 cross country athletes in the Saugus program, including boys, Nelson's coaching has freed up Paragas to dedicate more time to other concerns - namely guiding the girls.

Blankenship added that Paragas has done a good job managing the talent, exemplified by the following statement: "No one can take a plow horse and turn it into a race horse. But a bad coach can take a race horse and turn it into a plow horse."

And Saugus has had its share of racehorses.

Murakami, Katie Dunn of the 2007 state-title team and Kaylin Mahoney have been the Secretariats.

But the supporting cast has been just as important.

Six Saugus runners finished in the top 18 in last season's state-title run at the Division I Championship.
In 2006, they had four of the top 26.

But another important factor in the team's success has been leadership.

Murakami became team captain in 2006. Then she passed the torch to Dunn last year.

It now rests in the hands of senior Keri Molt.

"(Dunn) had big shoes to fill, but she went above and beyond," Murakami said. "Keri's done that and has been the best captain I've ever seen."

Murakami said Molt is a no-nonsense worker who drives her teammates to success.

Molt said she was honored to be named team captain before the season and understood it came with a considerable responsibility.

As to how much the leadership has been a factor in the team's success, she said: "I think it has everything to do with it."

That "everything" is based off what Murakami and Dunn did to pave the way.

But the success also has a lot to do with the dedication the team has shown.

Paragas lists the summer as an example.

The girls would get up at 6:30 a.m. and run anywhere from 80 minutes to two hours. The girls would then go home, eat and nap.

They'd come back at 5 p.m. and run for 40 minutes more, this time in 100-degree weather.

Then some of the girls would go home and lift weights.

Even on Sundays, when coaches aren't allowed contact with their players, the Saugus girls would gather on their own and train as a team.

"How many football teams, basketball teams would do that?" Paragas asked.

In the end, it's all worth it - three times, at least.

On Saturday, after the assemblage of coaches, talent and leaders past and present broke for the course, the dedication started all over again.

Sweat dripped from the athletes.

Sweat dripped down the forehead and neck of Paragas, who ran from station to station shouting instructions to his runners.

Mahoney stayed in the top three for the first two miles and then, cunningly, she broke for the finish line.

The sophomore won the Division II Individual title with a time of 17 minutes, 34 seconds, three seconds in front of Hillary Hayes of Edison.

Afterward, she nearly vomited.

Then her teammates followed, all huffing and coughing and sucking for air.

It wasn't even close.

Saugus won the Division II state title.

And the program is not done.

During the awards ceremony, Paragas said the leadership torch would likely be passed on to Amber Murakami next season.

After an eighth-place finish Saturday, running 18:03, the junior is no longer just Shannon's younger sister.

Now she will be the leader.

Mahoney will only be a junior next year, and she will likely be joined by junior-to-be Stephanie Bulder, who finished 14th Saturday, and sophomore-to-be Karis Frankian, who came in 17th.

The coaching shows no signs of changing, and the dedication will be the same.

They'll see you in Fresno next December.


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