FRESNO — A little over a month ago the Paso Robles boys cross country team claimed their sixth consecutive San Luis Obispo County cross country title, two weeks ago they won their fifth straight league title and on Nov. 15 they brought home their first CIF Cross Country title in over 70 years.
This is the Bearcats first season participating in the Central Section and while not many may have predicted a CIF championship run it was something that was in the back of many minds.
“We thought it was for sure possible but I don’t know about expected,” Paso’s sophomore No. 4 runner Jason Scruggs said. “We said we could get first and that is what we were striving for all year and we got it.”
A season ago, still as a Southern Section team, the Bearcats made numerous trips to the Central Valley to size up what would be their new competition. In fact, the Bearcats won a race last year that featured the top-ranked teams in Division 1 of the Central Section while still not being able to crack the top 10 in Division 2 of the Southern Section.
“We have had a lot of top-five finishes, a lot of good teams, and this team is a good solid team,” Bearcats head coach Ivan Huff said. “But I’m not going to lie the Central Section is a little easier than the Southern Section. There is a hundred and some — 105 teams compared to almost 600 teams in the Southern Section but the feelings are the same.”
Paso Robles placed two athlete’s inside the top four and three inside the top 10 to steal the victory away from Clovis North who only placed two runners in the top 10.
As he has for much of the second half of the season, junior Damian Gavilan led the way for the Bearcats finishing second overall with a time of 15 minutes and 27.26 seconds.
The soft-spoken running star ran his best race of the season and recorded a personal record in the process.
“I was feeling a PR [personal record],” Gavilan said. “When we were leading off the first mile I was a little nervous at first because usually, you shouldn’t lead the first mile but it wasn’t relatively fast and because of that it just helped me push through the other two miles and PR.”
Gavilan led or was near the front of the pack for much of the first mile, slowed down a little in the second, and turned on the burners when hit the hill for the final mile.
“I was just mind blown,” Gavilan said. “I knew that we were good but I didn’t think that we would actually take the title like that considering that the Central Section was full of a lot of good and experienced runners. It was just insane, I was just excited and happy.”
Gavilan wasn’t the only one setting records on Thursday as team captain Pablo Cortez also ran a personal best on the Woodward Park course with a time of 15:42.07 which placed him fourth overall.
“It was a crazy experience because right before the race we were ranked fourth and I don’t know...” Cortez said. “... During the race, it was kind of like any other race almost, except maybe a little special of course, but I mean, once we found out it was kind of crazy because I don’t think any of us really expected us to get that win like that in that fashion. As a senior I think that was awesome, it is a great way to end the season, well, of course, we’re not done, but it is really awesome to end my high school career with that win.”
Cortez has been a star on the Bearcats cross country team since his freshman year when he placed 14th in the League Championship meet and has continued to improve ever since.
“Damian Gavilan and Pablo both PR’d on that course and, I mean, those guys ran fantastic,” coach Huff said of his top-two runners. “That is the second-best time by a Paso athlete on that course, Damian’s time, and Pablo moves to fourth on the all-time list.”
The Scruggs brothers, Steven and Jason, finished three and four for the Bearcats and were crucial in helping the Bearcats pull off the seven-point victory. The oldest brother, Steven, is one of two seniors on the team and finished eighth overall with a time of 16:00.23 while the younger brother, Jason, a sophomore, finished 14th overall with a time of 16:13.71. Due to the Bearcats enormous success at the top of their lineup they had a fairly large lead with only one runner to go. Paso’s fourth runner crossed the finish line in 14th meaning that with only one runner to go they only had 28 total points. Through four runners Clovis North was already looking at 43 total points.
“It felt pretty cool,” Steven said. “Not many teams get to say that we won and, we won. We got a cool hat and that was pretty cool. I think I was most excited for the hat actually.”
The Bearcats’ fifth and perhaps most important finisher was junior Michael Hernandez who finished 37th overall with a time of 16:57.75 and sealed the victory for Paso Robles.
“From the beginning of the year, I had a rough start to the season but ended up being OK,” said Hernandez, who battled injuries for much of the first half of the season. “I knew we had a pretty good team but I didn’t think we would take it this far.”
This is the Bearcats first CIF cross country title in 77 years with their last one coming in 1941. Paso Robles won five CIF cross country titles in six years between 1936 and 1941.
The boys advanced to the state race which will also be held at Woodward Park this Saturday, Nov. 24.
Joining the boys at the state meet will be sophomore Madeline Loff and freshman Charlotte Castelli who both finished inside the top 12 for Division 2. Loff crossed the finish line with a time of 19:31.53 in sixth place and Castelli finished in 11nth place overall with a time of 19:53.31. The Lady Bearcats team as a whole finished in third place in Division 2.