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Rancho Cucamonga High School girls cross country head coach Lizette Carrell, center, is surrounded by her team’s runners. From left, Natalie Esquibel, Malia Reinhold, Renee Du, Madilyn Siana, Braelyn Combe, Jaden Miura and Nicole Alfred. The squad is ranked first in Division 1 for the Southern Section and second in the state. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Rancho Cucamonga High School girls cross country head coach Lizette Carrell, center, is surrounded by her team’s runners. From left, Natalie Esquibel, Malia Reinhold, Renee Du, Madilyn Siana, Braelyn Combe, Jaden Miura and Nicole Alfred. The squad is ranked first in Division 1 for the Southern Section and second in the state. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
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RANCHO CUCAMONGA >> The Rancho Cucamonga cross country program has a long history of success, and when Nicole Alfred qualified for the CIF State Championships last year as a freshman it was the fifth time a Cougar girl had qualified for state.

But unlike the Rancho Cucamonga boys, who have advanced as a team to state about half the time in the last two decades, the Cougars’ girls have never gone to state as a team.

After a promising 2021 season where the Cougars finished ninth at CIF-SS Division 1 finals (two spots from advancing to state), Cougars were already favored to advance to state this year. But the results so far have forced the 2022 Cougars to make loftier goals, like winning state.

“At the end of track season, I asked them, ‘what is our goal? What are we going to do?,’” said Rancho Cucamonga coach Lizette Carrell, who started coaching at the school last track season. “They said, ‘state.’ We set it there at the end of track season. I did not know we would be in the place where we are now.”

The Cougars were No. 5 in CIF-SS Division 1 in a preseason ranking, and they are now ranked No. 1 in CIF-SS and No. 2 in Division I in the state. They enter this weekend’s Mt. SAC Invitational behind only Buchanan of Clovis in the state rankings.

Rancho Cucamonga will run in the Division 1 and 2 team sweepstakes race at Mt. SAC on Saturday at 9:57 a.m.

While Alfred is the team’s No. 1 runner, the strength of the team comes in its gap: the time between the No. 1 and 5 runners on the team in a race. At the Nike Portland XC Invite last month, Rancho Cucamonga took second in the Danner Championships as a team, with a gap of just 17.8 seconds between the Cougars’ first and fifth runners.

“To see them run so close together, really shocked me and surprised me,” Carrell said. “Nicole and Maddy (Siana, a junior) set the tone for the team. They go out and the girls know, ‘I’m just going to follow them.’ They set the tone for the team. That works well and that’s why the girls are able to run the way that they run.”

It’s a remarkable team, for many reasons: not only are there only two seniors among the top seven, but there is basically no running experience before high school. The only exception is junior Jaden Miura, who was in a running club at the age of 12 but didn’t enjoy it.

Many of them come with a soccer background and joined cross country as training for soccer. Miura, Alfred and freshmen Malia Reinhold and Braelyn Combe all started running as training for soccer. Siana’s parents ran cross country at Alta Loma and senior Natalie Esquibel and Reinhold have older siblings who ran at Rancho Cucamonga.

Senior Renee Du had a more unconventional path: she was a figure skater.

“During quarantine, I wanted to keep in shape,” Du said. “So I started running.”

All of them have similar stories about being overwhelmed by the number of miles training required at the start, but growing to love it to the point where it is their primary sport. That’s with the exception of the freshmen, who have not had to make that decision … yet.

“I was really scared,” Alfred said. “I remember my first practice I was running with them. They had to go out and run 3 1/2 miles. They said, ‘you can turn back. It’s OK. It’s your first practice.’ I was like, ‘no. no.’ I ran and on the way back I was so out of breath.”

“I did a lot of other sports, but I was never happy with any of them,” Siana said. “Once I got to high school and started running, I felt so happy running. I loved the team and this sport, too.”

Combe was coming off an ankle injury from last spring in soccer and was using running as a rehabilitation tool.

“It was a really big setback,” Combe said of the injury. “I wanted to do a sport (in high school). My parents were like, ‘how is she going to make a high school soccer team If she’s hurt?’ I was like, ‘if I get faster, I might have a better chance at soccer.’ Now, it’s become something that I love. I got better at cross country than soccer.”

While the number of miles run might have seemed overwhelming when they started, it’s not a big deal to them anymore.

Siana told a teacher recently that she ran 6 miles that day.

“You do that before school?” the teacher asked. “It takes me a whole day to run 6 miles.”

“The thing I like about cross country is that I can do it every day if I want to,” Siana said. “It’s like I don’t have to have a soccer field or a soccer ball to run. I just have to have running shoes.”

From a team that took third in the Baseline League last year to one that is tracking to win state, the team has seen some surprising time improvements.

“Last year my PR (personal record) was 19:11 at Woodbridge,” Miura said. “This year at Woodbridge I got 17:24. I remember before the race, I was hoping to get a new PR. I wanted to go sub-19 (minutes). Afterwards, during the race, I was conscious I was going sub-19. When I actually finished, I was super excited.”

And the goals of the team have certainly changed.

“I freaked out when they said we could potentially win league,” Esquibel said.

Last year at state, Alfred was joined by her teammates but only for moral support. This year, she’s looking forward to having them supporting her in the race.

“I feel like there’s less pressure on me,” Alfred said of racing as a team. “Because we’re performing so well, we’re all going to perform our best.”

Carrell is wary of heightened expectations that come from their current ranking.

“I make it known to the girls there’s always something we can fix, always something we can do better at,” she said. “There is a target on our backs now. Just because you’re ranked second doesn’t mean state is promised. It doesn’t mean we’re going to do well at CIF. It means you need to keep working hard. It means we’re going in the right direction, we’re meeting our goals, but we need to continue to work to meet them.”

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