PASO ROBLES — Paso Robles boys cross country has been one of the top sports programs in the county for the past decade. Last season they won their sixth consecutive San Luis Obispo County cross country title, their fifth straight cross country league championship and capped off their dominant run with CIF Central Section Division 1 title, their first in 70 years. This weekend the Bearcat boys and girls cross country teams will be back on the racecourse for the first time since finishing the season last year and are ready to defend their title.
The Bearcat boys won their CIF title last year by having a deep team with a core group of four boys who always found themselves in the top 20, usually all within the top 15, with two of the boys, Pablo Cortez and Damian Gavilan fighting it out for first.
The four horsemen together could push each other not only in races but in practice each and every day, however now that group has been cut in half as Steven Scruggs and Cortez have both graduated leaving the team to Gavilan and the younger Scruggs brother, Jason. While the boys do return their top runner from last year in Gavilan and their most improved runner in Scruggs the boys will have their work cut out for them this year if they hope to keep the streak alive, and they know it.
“In this offseason, for me, I did more than I have ever done over the course of my three years before this,” Gavilan said at practice this week. “So I could try and inspire the other runners to train hard because we lost a lot of good runners and I want our team to get back to where it has been.”
Bearcat cross country runners are a staple of Paso Robles summers, wiry boys and girls with springs for legs bounding past your house or down your street and the champions were at it hard this offseason putting in the work to avoid the championship hangover.
“There was definitely a lot of processing to go through,” Scruggs said. “With the highs of us winning the championship and then losing a few good guys and now we trying to get all the JV guys to being varsity runners and replacing those holes this year.”
Senior Michael Hernandez will also look to play a major role in the Bearcats cross country team as he did for them last year running in the fifth spot. Hernandez, Caelan Casa, Daniel Jimenez and Ethan Short are all Bearcats that will play important roles for the boys team and will be fighting for the top five spots.
Coming into last season it was no secret that the boys team had at least a shot at the CIF title, they knew it, there was a sort of buzz around the team and at practice.
This year, that buzz and anticipation is on the girls side who have the ingredients for a championship run. The girls finished in third place in Division 2 of CIF a year ago and return their two top runners in junior Madeline Loff and sophomore Charlotte Castelli, who both made it to the State meet last year, as well as senior Jasmine Rangel, junior Grace Chamberlain and sophomore Clara Lundy.
“That main core from last year is returning,” Paso Robles head cross country coach Ivan Huff said. “We graduated three seniors who were a factor last year but everyone that has returned has improved, they had a really good track season and there is a lot of young blood in here. A lot of freshmen, some girls with a background in running, they did it in junior high, besides being pretty good upfront we also have some depth.”
Each of the Lady Bearcats core of five runners finished inside the top 21 in the Mountain League Championships a year ago while four of the five were still underclassmen. The girls know they have the talent and are now building confidence training against each other.
“I think it is kind of inspiring [training with her teammates] because it is so cool to be with people who are so fast and care so much about the sport,” Castelli said. “It makes it so much fun to come to practice and to see other people succeed and then think that you can do that too.”
Paso Robles graduated three seniors last year and now look to have someone fill that leadership role and as the top runner Loff, having been one of them since her freshman year has begun applying what she learned from the seniors before her.
“I’ve definitely taken much more of a leadership role this year,” Loff said. “Since the seniors left, because we had a really young team my freshman year, our oldest girls were all juniors so I had two years with them and that was a really good experience to be with them and learn what it’s like to lead. Now that I am in their shoes it is a really interesting thing to be apart of.”
In Division 2, with a group of girls this fast, the Bearcats are going to be tough to beat and could certainly find themselves at the State meet come November.