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Youth cross country: Start of the run

High school success is often groomed at a much younger age

Posted: December 21, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: December 21, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Members of the SCVAA Warriors cross country program, with coaches Cyndi Hoezel, left, and Mike Sterkel, right.

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The journey to Fresno can sometimes start long before high school.

In a valley filled with some of the most decorated high school cross country programs in the state of California, at least a portion of that success can be traced back to some of the area’s thriving youth programs.

At the high school level, the Santa Clarita Valley has prospered in the sport for decades.

In all, SCV high schools have combined to win 12 team cross country state championships and three individual state crowns since the state meet began in 1987. All of those wins took place in Fresno.

Several factors can be attributed to this valley’s immense success in the sport, but perhaps at least one of those relates to the youth influence.

Similar to the youth football leagues or PONY baseball league in the Santa Clarita Valley, cross country has a handful of “feeder” organizations which can begin training kids as young as 5 years old.

“We feed into it. You see these kids excel and it’s really not different from any other sport,” says Mike Sterkel, director of the Santa Clarita Valley Athletic Association Warriors cross country program. “You see it in baseball, you see it in football. These kids succeed at the youth level and you see them go on and continue to succeed.”

The SCVAA Warriors — part of the same organization that also includes youth football teams — is one of the major cross country programs in this valley for pre-high school aged kids, and it has seen significant success at the national level.

On Dec. 1, the Warriors sent 15 athletes from ages 7 to 14 to Rock Hill, S.C. to compete in the Amateur Athletic Union Cross Country National Championships.

In the event that featured more than 1,000 kids from around the country, a few locals returned with medals. The event also included runners from Canyon Track Club Hawks, which was formerly known as Warriors East before it left the SCVAA earlier this year.

CTC Hawks mostly sends kids to Canyon and Golden Valley, while Warriors primarily feeds into West Ranch and Hart high schools.

There’s also the Santa Clarita Storm, whose kids mostly end up at either Valencia or Saugus highs.

All three have had several runners go on to achieve big things in high school.

“I think that the youth sports track teams bring in a lot of that because we teach the kids first and foremost to love the sport,” says Alan Bingham, president of SC Storm, which he founded in 2004.

Bingham says kids typically join the track and field program first before the standout distance runners eventually discover their affinity for cross country.

The Storm houses 348 kids on the track and field side and 96 in cross country, making it the biggest youth program in the SCV.

Due to rules within the conference in which they compete, both the Warriors and Hawks are limited to 275 combined kids in track and field and cross country.

Both of them easily reach that maximum.

But the big numbers at the youth level don’t always translate into the high schools.

“I think it’s a blessing and it’s a curse,” says Saugus High cross country head coach Rene Paragas of youth programs. “It can work out both ways and so certainly it helps. It’s benefitted in some way. I think the biggest thing is it brings awareness.”

On the other hand, Paragas says, sometimes kids who spend years working though the youth levels are burnt out by the time they get to ninth grade. This coming from a coach who has guided the Saugus girls team to seven state titles in a row and seen two individual state champions on the way.

To be fair though, both of the state champions — Shannon Murakami and Kaylin Mahoney — both ran at the youth level.

Murakami ran with the Warriors and Mahoney ran with both Warriors and Storm before arriving at Saugus.

Overall though, most of the talent Paragas has rounded up over the years has come from other places.

In the past, he’s gotten former soccer players to run cross country and he’s also found athletes in PE classes.

The talent is there, he says. It’s just a matter of finding and developing it.

“Santa Clarita has always been a hotbed of talent, and I think that preceded the formation of youth programs,” Paragas says. “I wouldn’t say the success of this valley is because of all these youth programs. At the same time, I wouldn’t say that they’ve had no hand in the success of our programs.”

There is evidence of youth teams producing talent, though.

The Hawks, for example, have seen big names come through, including Golden Valley seniors Nolan Del Valle and Chelsey Totten.

Del Valle was part of Golden Valley’s 2011 state championship team and he competed at the state meet this year as an individual. Totten took part in two CIF-Southern Section finals.

Youth runners have turned into high school stars at all six Foothill League high schools at one point or another.

“Because (we) help train them and we start at 5 years old, as they get older we start preparing them for high school and we start preparing them to run,” says John Molster, head of the Hawks program.

Without a doubt, the high school teams benefit from the local youth influence. The question is how much?

Canyon High cross country and track and field head coach Paul Broneer thinks it’s only a small portion of overall pool of athletes who join.

Broneer estimates about a fourth of his combined track and field and cross country athletes come from youth organizations.

Paragas says it’s closer to 20 percent on cross country alone.

Ultimately, Broneer says. youth cross country is helpful.

“It exposes (kids) to the sport,” the Canyon coach says. “Some of them like it and then they go on to become great runners.”

That’s always been the idea of nonprofit youth organizations like the Warriors.

They are there to fill a demand in this run-happy valley.

“Runners will come out of the program and these kids are usually very well disciplined, high achievers and it kind of helps channel that energy,” Sterkel says of the Warriors.

In the end, that’s all these programs ask of their kids. Whether or not they end up in Fresno isn’t the only concern.

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