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COURTESY EL TORO CROSS COUNTRY
El Toro's Xavier Smith, left, and Adrian Vargas lead the Chargers into the Orange County Championships on Saturday at Irvine Regional Park.

El Toro boys refusing to break stride

CONTRIBUTING WRITER

It looked like this was going to be a down year for the El Toro boys cross country team. The Chargers lost eight of their top 10 runners to graduation from last season’s CIF-SS finalist.

But El Toro hasn’t skipped a beat as a summer of hard work and bonding has the Chargers ranked third in the county and eighth in CIF-SS Division 1 going into the 50th annual Orange County Championships at Irvine Regional Park on Saturday.

“This is a group that’s had a long tradition,” El Toro coach Ken Chai said. “We’ve gone to the CIF Finals for 19 straight years. We thought this could be the year that we break that streak.”

To avoid that, Chai sat down with his group early in the spring, which was track season. He asked them to take a small hit to their track results in order to focus on their cross country training.

“They all bought in early in track season,” Chai said. “We took a risk and it’s starting to pay off big time for us.”

ORANGE COUNTY CHAMPIONSHIPS

Saturday, at Irvine Regional Park

First race: 7:45 a.m.

El Toro has captured three top-two team finishes this season, and leading the way are a pair of juniors, Adrian Vargas and Xavier Smith.

“We knew it was going to be hard,” Smith said. “We knew we just had Caleb (Dodd) and Adrian returning. What were we going to do? No one even knows us. It was scary.”

According to Vargas and Smith, the keys to this season’s success were the early training and a bonding moment at the team’s summer camp in Mammoth.

“We did a group meeting where we all shared a personal struggle that we overcame,” Vargas said. “With that, we learned that we’re all tougher. We’ve all faced something that’s much worse than running. We used that to fuel us and push us through the race.”

Smith said that idea was instrumental in the team capturing first place in the rated race at the Woodbridge Classic.

“I was struggling real hard,” Smith said, “and I hear my coach, ‘Don’t just run for yourself. Run for the others on your team.’ That honestly has fueled us to keep going even when we’re hurting. We all just fought for each other.”

Vargas paced the Chargers that day and hit his high-water mark for the season with a second-place finish at the South Coast League preview meet. Vargas finished four-tenths of a second out of first and several seconds ahead of top-ranked Dana Hills’ top runners.

Dana Hills, which is led by Jack Landgraf, will be one of 19 teams El Toro will grapple with in Saturday’s sweepstakes race.

Also competing in the boys sweepstakes race will be three other South Coast teams - No. 4 Trabuco Hills, No. 5 Mission Viejo, No. 8 Tesoro - and No. 2 Brea Olinda.

“I think Brea’s in our reach,” Vargas said, “but for the most part, (winning) O.C. is not our goal. Our goal is the postseason. That’s what we’re getting ready for.”

Also in the sweepstakes race will be a stacked group for No. 6 Valencia, Alexis Garcia and No. 9 Newport Harbor, Jacob Aries and No. 10 San Juan Hills, and Foothill’s Stuart Kendall running as an individual.


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