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PAUL RODRIGUEZ , STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Mission Viejo's Kennedy Gillian, a standout in the 200 and 400 meters and part of two relay teams, makes the Diablos the favorite to win the Orange County Championships.

Gillian sparks runaway success for Mission Viejo's girls

CONTRIBUTING WRITER

A championship-caliber team needs a centerpiece.

When Kennedy Gillian came out to run for Mission Viejo in 2013, the Diablos girls track and field team had the building block that would propel them for years to come.

She jumped right in as a proficient, four-event athlete. The 200- and 400-meter sprinter was also able to serve as a bridge on the team’s 400 and 1,600 relay teams.

“Having Kennedy the last four years is what turned this program around,” Diablos coach Chase Frazier said. “You have to start with a freshman, and with someone that you can see is going to build a future in connecting both relays or being a four-event athlete.

“The success that she has had at Mission Viejo has brought popularity to the sport here.”

Gillian reached the CIF State finals for the first time as a sophomore, placing eighth in the 400. Her performance made others in the Mission Viejo camp believe that goals such as county and CIF-SS championships were within reach.

“Kennedy and Taylor Arco going to state in the 400 and 800 their sophomore year showed our team that school records and state meet aspirations are very real,” Frazier said. “With (Gillian’s) ability, she’s been able to give our relays a chance to rank us in the state and the nation.

“Her presence at practice alone is what helps push the rest of our girls to run faster and faster.”

The Diablos have flourished the last couple of years. They have placed in the top four the last two years at the CIF-SS Division 2 Finals. Last season, Mission Viejo earned its first league title since 2007.

With their depth and consistency, the Diablos have been pinned as a heavy favorite to win the Orange County Championships on Saturday at Mission Viejo.

“I am super confident,” Gillian said of her team’s chances to win the county crown. “We have been training hard all season. I’m definitely ready for this weekend. Our team is super deep this year.”

The O.C. Championships award points to the top eight finishers in each event, using a scoring system that goes 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1. Mission Viejo’s girls have a shot at scoring in 14 of the 16 events.

Gillian has the county’s second fastest time this season in the 400 (56.22 seconds), and she anchors the county-leading 1,600 relay (3:50.95). She has a hunger for winning, and perhaps, hunger is the secret that drives the Diablos.

“For the 4x400, our team goal is to run a 3:47 so then our coach is going to take us out to dinner,” Gillian joked. “That’s an extra bonus on top of making it to state.”

Whitney Hessler, Sahla Cook, Arco and Gillian make up that relay team.

Mission Viejo also excels outside of its relays. Emma DeSilva is the county leader in the discus (143-6). Ciera Williams is third in the shot put. Hannah Duarte is second in both hurdles races, and also competes in the long jump and triple jump.

Seniors Chloe Berry and Arco have been joined by standout freshman Kelli Hines to give a boost to the Diablos’ distance corps.

Two of the most-anticipated races in Saturday’s meet will be the 200 and the 400, where Gillian will be opposed by Los Alamitos’ Ashley Willingham. Both athletes are making their way back from hamstring injuries, but they say they’re ready to go full-throttle.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” said Willingham, who posted a season-best 55.51 at the Mt. SAC Relays last weekend. “My coaches and I have developed a plan so that I can get back into it. Hopefully, I can start hitting 54’s again.”

Willingham makes the defending-champion Griffins go. She is the county leader in the 200 (24.53) and the 400.

The top-ranked Trabuco Hills boys will be without state high jump leader Sean Lee, but don’t count the Mustangs out of the title hunt. Cameron Hurd is a candidate to take both hurdles races, and the Mustrangs have the county lead in both relays.

Eight state leaders are among the individual performers, including two national leaders. Esperanza’s Bronson Osborn holds that honor in the discus (204 feet, 4 inches). Canyon’s Rachel Baxter leads the country in pole vault at 14-2.

Brea Olinda coach Matt Rainwater said distance star Austin Tamagno will limit his workload to the 400.

ORANGE COUNTY CHAMPIONSHIPS

Where, when: Mission Viejo High, Saturday, 8:30 a.m.

Fan info: Gates open at 7 a.m. Tickets are $10 for adults. Students (without an ASB card) and seniors are $5. Students (with an ASB card) are $3. Children (under 10 years of age) are $2. Parking is free in the Mission Viejo High parking lot.

Girls prediction: Mission Viejo wins its first O.C. title since 2006, displacing third-ranked Los Alamitos from the throne.

Boys prediction: Several teams are capable of winning the title. The boys champion will be decided in the final race, the 1,600 meter relay. Trabuco Hills, Servite, Los Alamitos and Fountain Valley are the teams with the depth to claim enough points to win the title.

- ANDREW TURNER


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