Good vibes surround LCC-Torrey Pines cross country opener

Senior Cormac O'Brien led the Torrey Pines boys past LCC Monday.
Senior Cormac O’Brien led the Torrey Pines boys past LCC Monday.

(Ken Grosse)

About two minutes after the runners had left the starting line for Monday morning’s first race of his team’s season-opening dual meet against Torrey Pines, a masked La Costa Canyon Cross Country Coach Bill Vice animatedly called out to one of his course marshals, “Hey, we’re racing — isn’t it great.”

That pretty much summed up the mood of the day and even though his boys’ and later girls’ varsity squads were defeated by their crosstown rival, the perennially successful Vice viewed what he was watching as an unqualified victory.

“The fact that we’re out here today absolutely overshadows everything else,” said Vice afterward. “Underneath this mask I’ve got the biggest smile on my face — it felt good, it felt normal.

Freshman Scarlett Taylor was all smiles after winning in her cross country debut.
Freshman Scarlett Taylor was all smiles after winning in her cross country debut.
(Ken Grosse)

“It was an opportunity for these kids to get their thoughts off everything else that’s going on, just compete and have some fun.”

While big picture was the order of the day, the results clearly favored visiting Torrey Pines. Under long-time assistant but first-year Head Coach Gerard Reski, the Falcons were impressive. Spurred by veteran talent at the top-of-the-lineup they captured six of the first seven slots, while claiming the boys’ varsity race, 15-50. Then, fielding a roster that didn’t include a single senior, Reski’s girls went 1-2-3 while posting a 21-34 decision.

In the boys’ competition, seniors Cormac O’Brien and Oregon-bound Sebastian Barclay pulled away late to finish first and second respectively. O’Brien clocked 16:34.3 over the three-mile La Costa Valley Sports Park layout and Barclay crossed the line eight seconds later. LCC sophomore Jacob Niednagel, who was the only Maverick runner with any varsity experience entering the day, hung with the leaders most of the way before settling for third in 16:49.3. Torrey sophomore Nathan Christmore and freshman Matt Conway rounded out the top five.

LCC's Jacob Niednagel surrounded by Torrey Pines runners.
LCC’s Jacob Niednagel surrounded by Torrey Pines runners.
(Ken Grosse)

“I was absolutely pleased with what I saw from the boys,” said Reski. “It was a first race and there was definitely that kind of cautious, feeling out process there early.

“I asked Cormac and Sebastian to go out and hold a steady pace and pull the rest of the team along for the first mile. Then, you’ve just got to let the horses run. They started picking it up and it just came down to who had the stamina at the end.”

O’Brien, who survived an early fall in a muddy portion of the course, was happy just to be there. “It was our first race in almost a year and just being there with the team, racing and everything, it felt amazing,” said O’Brien. “I was kind of disappointed with my time but honestly today was about just getting the win and getting a team win.”

Kyra Compton (left) and Annika Salz pushed the pace in the early going of the girls' varsity race.
Kyra Compton (left) and Annika Salz pushed the pace in the early going of the girls’ varsity race.
(Ken Grosse)

Although the contest was essentially an exhibition for LCC due to injuries and sickness (they couldn’t field the required five runners), Vice was enthusiastic about Niednagel’s effort and knows his young team was not facing just any opponent. “Jacob did a great job,” said Vice. “He’s only a sophomore and was right there with some pretty decent runners.

“Torrey Pines — that’s a good team. I think one of the better programs in the state given a normal year.”

Youth was served in the girls’ race. Falcon freshman walk-on Scarlett Taylor was a revelation. In her first-ever cross country competition, the effervescent Taylor shadowed her more experienced teammates for the first mile and a half before turning on the jets and breezing to a 15-second triumph in 18:33.4.

Sophomore Marissa Gaut was runner-up in a time of 18:48.9, TP junior Kiana Bourgeois (19:04.6) rallied in the last quarter of the course for third with LCC’s best finisher, junior Kyra Compton (19:17.3), picking up fourth. In fifth place was junior Annika Salz who was the Falcons’ top placer at the 2019 CIF D-I Championships grabbing sixth place overall.

The bubbly Taylor, who has still not attended a class on the Torrey Pines campus and has primarily been a soccer player to this point, was a mixture of exuberance and wonderment during a post-race interview.

“It was so fun,” said Taylor. “It felt really amazing coming up to the finish line with all the parents and teammates cheering me on. The running community has so much support and enthusiasm and just makes you feel good about yourself.”

Reski can actually thank Covid for helping send Taylor his way. She started playing soccer at age 2 and still plays competitively at the club level. With club practices curtailed by health protocols, her soccer coach had the players out running on their own to stay in shape. Turns out Taylor not only stayed in shape but found a new passion.

“I just really liked running,” says Taylor. “My parents could see how much I liked it and suggested cross country this year because soccer was still limited. It’s ended up working out really well.” In her cross country debut, Taylor followed Reski’s orders to a tee.

“This being her first cross country racing event, I told her I didn’t want her taking the lead but had her sit on our more experienced runners, Annie (Salz) and Marissa,” said Reski. “At mile two, I told here that’s when we’d take the reins off. She followed those directions in textbook style and when we let her go, she opened it up.”

In the last third of the race, when she took command from Salz and Gaut, the moment dawned on the gifted freshman. “All of the sudden, I thought ‘oh my gosh, I can actually do this.’ It kind of felt exhilarating. I had that runner’s high feeling and felt unstoppable — almost like I could do anything.”

What she and her teammates are capable of this season is still up in the air but the future certainly looks bright. Taylor, who appeared to hit the wire with plenty left in the tank, called it a team effort.

“I feel like this team puts in a lot of effort at practice and I thought we showed well today,” she said. “We have a lot of good people in our program and today was a well-earned result.”

Both girls’ squads were at less than full strength, the most notable absence being LCC senior Sydney Weaber, the defending CIF Division II individual champion. They will likely meet down the road. Vice, a steady hand in these kinds of scenarios, took the outcome in stride.

“It was not surprising, I know what they’ve got,” he smiled. “I see them running every Saturday on the coast and they’re very good. But I know what we’ve got too, I just think we’re in a different level of shape and need to push through some things.

“Kyra has been working hard and I thought ran a pretty good race. Our second runner in was a freshman (Gioana Lopizzo) and our third was a sophomore (Kira Larner). We keep developing the younger kids and get our vets back and we’ll be fine.

“I’m a very competitive person, but you temper your competitiveness with the fact that we’re out here today giving kids a much-needed opportunity. I guarantee that underneath all those masks you’ll find a lot of smiles.”