The St. Helena cross country team’s season came to an early end last week as the team opted not to compete in the North Coast Section Meet. The decision, reached by the four members of the team entered in the competition and coach Sarah Herdell, was for safety reasons.
Leading up to the section meet, which was held last Tuesday in Hayward, the Saints’ training sessions had been severely limited by the poor air quality that swallowed Northern California the last several weeks. That lack of training before the biggest meet of the year left the Saints feeling unprepared, Herdell said over the phone on Monday.
That feeling of unpreparedness, coupled with a sudden illness that overtook Saints top runner Jordan Reilly, who had the best chance of making noise at sections, made the decision to not compete an unfortunate but simple one for Herdell and her team.
“He was really the runner that the team wanted to go and support and we had some other runners who were going to go for the experience,” Herdell said on Monday. “Then Jordan got sick the week of sections plus we didn’t train a whole lot because of the smoke. We just decided that it was safest for the athletes to not participate this year.”
The Saints’ last meet was the Coastal Mountain Conference Meet of Champions held back on Nov. 5 where all the teams that comprise the three North Central Leagues competed. Reilly finished the three-mile course in a time of 18 minutes, 18.0 seconds, good for ninth overall and third-best in the NCL I.
As a team, the St. Helena boys finished ninth overall out of 13 teams and fifth out of the eight NCL I teams. Sophomore Jade Schlatter recorded the best time for the girls with 24:30.7, but the girls team did not score any points.
Just three days after that meet, the Camp Fire broke out in Butte County and turned the Napa Valley air into a thick haze. Training was nearly impossible and the four Saints entered in the section meet grew restless. They still wanted to compete, mainly for the experience but also to support Reilly.
But as the air quality issues persisted, Herdell weighed the options with her team. Eventually, they all agreed that the best course of action would be to sit the section meet out this year.
“I gave them a choice and then when I really started looking, I asked them on Sunday how they felt as far as training and their bodies and breathing and they were all a little bit quiet to speak up because I don’t think any of them wanted to be the ‘Debbie Downer,’ ” Herdell said. “I think all four of them agreed unanimously that they just didn’t feel prepared.
“We were bummed that we couldn’t go but there were just unfortunate circumstances.”
The section meet was actually cut short, again stemming from air quality issues. The air quality index (AQI) was deemed safe at the start of the meet last Tuesday but grew worse as the meet went on, getting so bad that organizers eventually ended it before every team ran.
Only Divisions 1 and 2 completed their races while Divisions 3, 4 and 5 had to pack up and call it a day without even competing. St. Helena competes in Division 5. A small committee was created by the section that eventually chose the teams and individuals that advanced to the state meet, which was held last Saturday.
St. Helena has competed in the section meet the last two years. The meet has provided an opportunity for young runners to gain experience racing against and watching some of the top runners in the state compete.
“I realized it’s just not worth putting them into that position. We were going purely for the experience,” Herdell said. “Even Jordan wouldn’t have even been in the top 40. Really it was for the experience and to get the younger kids pumped up for next year. We had a really great time going to it the last two years and I know Jordan wanted to share it with his teammates. But fortunately, everyone is coming back, so they’ll hopefully get to experience that next year if everything goes as planned.”
Like Herdell said, St. Helena should have plenty more opportunities to compete in the section meet in the coming years. This Saints had no seniors this season and Herdell hopes to return most of her young team while she tries to make cross country a more mainstream sport at St. Helena.
“I think that we should have a pretty promising group next year with having a little more experience,” she said.
As far as the season as a whole goes, Herdell was unsurprised by the deficits her young team faced. She was overall happy with how her runners grew and competed but understands that they’re still learning the sport.
“I really think the mental game played an effect on our freshman group this year,” she said. “They just need some more experience and need to learn how to pace and work on some of that timing. I think that now that they have a little bit of experience they’re going to feel a lot more confident next year.”
Herdell said that despite the deficits, she thoroughly enjoyed coaching this year and is eager to see what the future holds.
“It was really fun, super young group so it was great to have some new blood on the team and introduce them to our sport and our team traditions,” she said. “It was a good season, it went by really fast this year. It just was kind of a crazy fall and then all this the last two weeks kind of sped things along. I really looking forward to next year and having some more experience and hopefully growing the team a little bit.”