And they’re off: First official Sunny Hills sports event during the coronavirus pandemic ends with Lancers boys cross country team defeating Buena Park

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Aliyah Ahmad

Masks in hand, twin brothers and cross country runners David (center) and Sergio Perez (right) race toward the finish line Feb. 3 on the Sunny Hills track, where the first sports event of the school year was held after the coronavirus pandemic had shut down all previous athletic competitions since last March. The Lancers boys cross country team — the only SH squad with enough athletes in attendance to compete — defeated the runners from Buena Park High School by a three-point margin.

Henry Lee

After months of delays and changes to statewide high school sports competition, cross country became the first at Sunny Hills to organize a California Interscholastic Federation-sanctioned athletic event Wednesday afternoon with the only eligible team of boys defeating Buena Park High School.

“It’s been a tough year for sure — we had to shut a lot of practices,” boys and girls cross country head coach Jacob Holloway said after the two-hour meet that started at 3 p.m. “[The win] is definitely great and something to build on, but it’s more about progress at this stage. I hope that competition provides a spark of motivation for some who were lacking.”

The first Freeway League meet Wednesday comes four days after a Jan. 30 cross country contest between two Riverside schools in what is reported to have been the first CIF-sanctioned athletic event in Southern California since the COVID-19 pandemic started last March, according to an Orange County Register article.

Since state health officials had ended Gov. Gavin Newsome’s stay-at-home order, CIF officials subsequently allowed cross country, skiing and snowboarding competitions to occur as part of the CIF Season 1 slate. Of those three sports, Sunny Hills only offers the first one.

Although Wednesday’s meet was open to all levels of cross country runners, Holloway said his girls varsity runners and boys frosh/soph and girls frosh/soph, which also make up the junior varsity squad, had to forfeit to Buena Park because each Lancer group lacked the seven required runners. 

Nevertheless, one girl and four boys in frosh/soph were still allowed to race against Buena Park runners, though the Lancers’ scores were not counted.

Many key athletes opted out for personal reasons stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the coach said. 

“It is more of a roll of the dice this year because we don’t know who is necessarily running for each team, and it might change week to week,” said Holloway, who took full reins of the sport this season a year after he was hired to work with the JV cross country squad while Ashley Geisler was hired to work with the varsity runners. 

[The win] is definitely great and something to build on, but it’s more about progress at this stage. I hope that competition provides a spark of motivation for some who were lacking.”

— Jacob Holloway

Geisler has since resigned from the position to return back to school, he said.

Despite not being able to field a full team at the other levels, the head coach maintained an optimistic attitude, especially since seven boys varsity runners showed up to compete and defeat Buena Park by three points.

“Technically, our girls varsity and frosh/soph teams had to forfeit, but the reality is we did not have enough people to actually compete so it was more of an exhibition,” Holloway said. “But I am very satisfied with the results – I told the kids going in that this is not a pressure situation because there is a lot of uncertainty with the season.” 

While face masks were not required for athletes to wear during the race, all runners were required to complete a survey evaluating potential COVID-19 symptoms. During the race, some runners opted to carry their mask to wear immediately after the race was completed. 

Junior Noah Flores, who placed second out of 13 runners in the boys varsity race with a time of 17:28, said the delay in his cross country season had an impact on his performance. 

“My performance was good — My first lap was fast, but overall, I think I did pretty good,” Flores said. “Corona did affect the overall performance because practices were different and a lot of kids didn’t show up.”

Various coaches, the athletic director and the SH softball team volunteered on site to help manage scores and keep a record of time. No outside spectators, such as family and students, were permitted.

“My friend and family did come to support me but they were waiting outside of school,” girls varsity runner freshman Katelyn Marin said. “I feel as if they were rooting from the bottoms of their hearts even if some supporters weren’t there.”

As a first year runner for the girls varsity team, Marin felt disappointed that the restrictions obstructed many team bonding activities.

“I don’t like that the cross country team doesn’t get to have the full team bonding they have mentioned in the past years,” Marin said. “However, safety does come first.”

Wednesday’s meet was also held at the Sunny Hills track and softball field, which hasn’t occurred since at least the mid-1990s when the cross country coach in 1995 moved all Lancer home meets to Craig Regional Park in Brea, according to Sunny Hills alumni Facebook posts.

Holloway said he had to switch venues because public parks are not allowing event registrations. The three-mile route — cleared by Freeway League officials — consisted of six laps around the SH track and softball field, Holloway said. 

My friend and family did come to support me but they were waiting outside of school. I feel as if they were rooting from the bottoms of their hearts even if some supporters weren’t there.”

— Katelyn Marin

“We’d love to run in the local parks again at some point, but we enjoy the chance for competition on any course we’re scheduled to run on,” he said. “Our first meet on-campus went very well though, and the staff and admin deserve credit for helping produce a safe, fun and encouraging event.”

Some returning runners, like senior Ryan West, found it difficult to run on the Sunny Hills campus. 

“This terrain was more confusing because you have to count a lot more than you would normally have to,” said West, who placed sixth. “You also have to do the same route multiple times and here, it is grass and dirt, so running on the hard dirt takes a toll once you have to do it more than once.”

The Lancers will next travel to Troy to face off against the Warriors on Feb. 10 from 3-5 p.m.

First-year athletic director Paul Jones said he didn’t observe any health and safety violations for the first sporting event of the 2020-21 school year.

“I am glad we actually got to get out and compete,” Jones said. It’s been great to actually see people on campus as we got kids and coaches helping and participating.

“Kids get to run, and it’s really exciting, so hopefully this gets the ball rolling for more sports to come back.”