It’s taken an agonizing two years for Napa High junior Claire Miller to return to the CIF State Cross Country Championships.
For Vintage junior MacKenzie Mills, her first trip to the meet at Fresno’s Woodward Park is the payoff for two years of full-time dedication to running.
As for Justin-Siena sophomore Teal Bullick, the state meet was more of a surprise than a goal and it’s still sinking in that she even made it.
What the Valley’s three state qualifiers have in common is a passion for cross country, and they and their coaches couldn’t be more excited that they are going.
The Weather Channel forecasts a sunny 66 degrees by afternoon, but it could be much cooler when Bullick competes in the meet-opening Division IV girls race at 8:30 a.m. Miller and Mills will compete in the Division I girls race at 10:40 a.m.
Perseverance pays off for Miller
All eyes were on Miller when she reached her first state meet as a freshman. She accompanied then-senior Kurt Ruegg as he remarkably made his fourth straight trip. His shoes were already being filled by the next great Napa High runner as she finished 43rd out of 194 varsity girls in Division I in 18 minutes, 49 seconds — her best time on a 3.1-mile course anywhere. She was the sixth-fastest freshman in the race.
But Miller missed several races as a sophomore. She ended the season by starting the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division I race in Folsom, but not finishing it due to one of many injuries that had sidelined her all year.
“I had a terrible year,” Miller recalled on Tuesday. “I had so many injuries, to my right knee, then my left knee, then my right calf. It was like ‘Oh, I hate this’ and you start thinking negatively, but I only did for a little bit. I told myself ‘I can’t think about this right now.’ You can only do what you’re given; there’s nothing you can do besides that.
“I had to cut and take time off and rest. You can’t push through it, because otherwise you end up getting hurt even more. If I didn’t take all that time off, I probably wouldn’t even be here right now. I never really let myself get discouraged. I knew I was having a tough time, but I knew that once I got over it and was strong again I’d probably be able to make it, to do better. I just needed to focus on recovering.”
The daughter of Alan and Marisa Miller got off to a strong start this year, with a seventh-place finish at the Ed Sias Invitational in Martinez and a first-place finish in the Indians’ Monticello Empire League opener against Wood at Lagoon Valley Park in Vacaville.
Miller faded to a fifth-place finish in the next MEL meet, against Vacaville at Napa’s Alston Park, where she would also miss the league center meet. But as the Indians’ lone representative at the Sept. 24 Stanford Invitational, she placed 20th in the Division I race in 19:21 — 30 seconds faster than her time there in 2010. Napa coach Roger Ruegg said Miller seemed to have finally put injuries and setbacks behind her. But four days later, she was resting a high-hip injury and cheering on teammates at the first league center meet.
“I hurt my left hip a little bit so I’ve been running four days a week for a while, but it’s not nearly as bad as last year,” Miller said. “I ended up changing my running style, too. I used to run like this (with feet pointed slightly inward).”
On Oct. 8, she placed 23rd out of 278 runners at the Crystal Springs Invitational in Belmont. She finished second to Mills at a Big Game dual meet on Oct. 19. At the huge Mt. SAC meet at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California on Oct. 22, she medaled with a sixth-place time of 19:25. Four days later, she was fifth in the MEL Championships.
Miller took her momentum to the subsection meet in Angels Camp on Nov. 5 and ran a fifth-place time of 19:28 on the 3.0-mile course. She then ran a course personal record of 19:30 in the section meet at Willow Hill in Folsom, placing eighth. By virtue of being one of the top five individuals not on a qualifying team, and finishing in the top eight, her ticket to state was stamped.
“Sections was the only race I was nervous in this year,” Miller said. “Last year was hard mentally and physically, but it actually helped me mentally because when you take that much time off, you just come back and say ‘Oh, I love running so much more.’ It makes you appreciate it a lot more.”
She said Woodward Park is one of her favorite courses.
“It’s definitely the most amazing course ever,” she said. “The first mile is super-fast and you can’t worry about your time because it’s downhill. Then there are a couple of big hills and at the last bit, there’s this loop where you think you’re in the middle of nowhere and then you come out and there’s the finish line. I really want to break my freshman time, 18:49.”
Roger Ruegg said he can’t take much credit for Miller’s comeback.
“It’s really her,” the coach said. “She did have a disastrous year last year, with injuries and incomplete races, and just a lot of disappointment. But she’s worked really hard since the end of cross country season last year, a little bit each day to get stronger, and also worked with physical therapists at Napa Valley Physical Therapy who guided her last winter and spring. She’s on her own doing core strength, following the plan, running a little bit, doing the bike, cross training, and it’s paid off. She’s back where she was two years ago and even a little bit stronger.
“I give her all kinds of credit for not giving up because it would be so easy to do. This is a hard sport. You have to be consistent and working pretty hard year-round, and she’s done that, so it’s really all her. I’ve been lucky enough to guide her through the cross country season and keep her healthy and get her a little bit stronger. She’s been running so really good workouts lately, so we’re just hoping for a really good race on Saturday.”
She’ll also get to run with Mills, whom she befriended back when they were in the Napa Track Club before high school, running relays together.
Mills not ready to stop now
MacKenzie Mills not only went undefeated in every MEL competition this year, but won by large margins. In a MEL meet against Wood, she set a new Alston Park school record of 19:52, also the course’s third-best girls time ever.
But those meets weren’t as important to her as the “weekend meets,” as she called the Saturday invitationals.
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Those meets saw her place second out of 120 runners at the Lagoon Valley Classic, in a course personal best 19:26; fourth out of 95 at the two-mile Viking Opener in Santa Rosa in 12:10, the 30th-fastest time in the 25-year history of the race.; ran a PR of 19:10 to place 15th out of 208 at the Stanford Invitational; won the Oak Ridge Invitational at Willow Hills Reservoir in Folsom in 19:51, 26 seconds ahead of the next runner; and was fourth at the Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo Invitational, leading the field through the first mile.
“She’s been extremely consistent this year,” Vintage coach Brian Pruyn said. “She’s fit and fast and everything’s been a good race. We’re still waiting for that great race to get popped, and I think Saturday could be that race, where all the pressure is off for the most part and she can just go out there and let it rip. It’s a fast course and a fast group of girls, and she has had some amazing workouts the last couple of weeks where everything is just sort of coming together at the right point in time.”
Those meets seemed to have prepared her well for the biggest weekend events of the year — the subsection meet in Angels Camp, where she won with a time of 18:57, and the section meet in Folsom, where she led for the first 2.5 of the 3.1 miles before finishing sixth in 19:14 — a course personal best by more than 30 seconds.
Mills finally made it to the state meet, after finishing 23rd at sections in 2010. In 2009, she placed fifth in the section frosh-soph race, which doesn’t advance runners to states.
“I’m so excited because there’s more fast people to push you, and I heard it’s a fast course,” Mills said, adding that all of her wins this year haven’t left her satisfied in the least. “I’m always hungry. I want more, more, more. I’m nervous, but it’s nervous excitement, like you want it so much you can’t wait. There’s not words to explain it. I want to go be pushed to greatness. I set a goal during summer to get here, so I’m ready.”
Pruyn said it made sense that this was the year Mills would make the state meet considering she was still playing her former standout sport, basketball, two summers ago.
“As a sophomore she came into the season not really fit,” the coach said. “She put in a lot of good work between August and November, but it’s a year-round sport. You can work hard for two months, but other people are working hard for 10 months, 12 months. There were some amazing races and there were some really big letdown races, and that’s what comes when you’re fast but you’re not necessarily fit. This year she kinda took that to heart. Pretty much as soon as the last cross country season ended, she started getting ready for track, and soon as track ended she started getting ready for cross country. It takes that building month by month by month.
“There’s a quote she has hanging up in her house that says ‘The mundane is heroic.’ I think that captures the sport to a ‘T’ because every single day you’re just out there doing something to get better. and it’s usually nothing sensational, flashy or eye-catching. It’s just work, and eventually that work gets you to the top of your game, and hopefully the top of your game is good enough to make you happy.”
Mills laughed with Miller like the tightest of friends on Tuesday when they convened at Alston Park to talk about their seasons. They seemed much closer than one might expect the best runners from rival schools to be. Then again, Mills always talked about missing Miller if she couldn’t run in a meet against Vintage.
“I think in a sense it’s been inspirational for her to see someone (like Miller) who’s been though some struggles the last couple of years,” Pruyn said. “They started with a little bit of a rivalry in their freshman year. But they’ve also had that friendship from being in the Napa Track Club, and I think it’s more that than a rivalry. They like seeing each other get better. Their relationship has been a way for MacKenzie to see that if you put in the work, even if it’s not always coming in your favor, eventually you’ll get there.”
Multi-gifted Bullick steps up
Teal Bullick met Miller and Mills for the first time Tuesday, and they told her they liked her unusual first name. It’s not the only thing that sets the daughter of Eithne Haran Bullick and Paul Bullick apart.
Before she began running competitively two summers ago, the Sonoma resident was a champion Irish step dancer, having danced with the McBride School of Irish Dance since she was 5, according to her mother. Teal is also a straight-A student who particularly enjoys biology and, as a former Waldorf student, really enjoys art.
Her mother was a cross country runner at Carlmont High in Belmont. Teal’s maternal grandfather was the late James “Spider” Haran, who won the 1942 Bay to Breakers in 43:53. Coincidentally, the first woman to better that time was Mary Boitano Blanchard, now Justin-Siena’s assistant cross country coach, en route to the first of her four Bay to Breakers victories.
“Teal inherited her willowy frame from her grandfather,” Eithne Haran Bullick said, adding that Teal’s uncle, Terry Haran, is a world-class marathon runner.
Teal had to develop her own love for running first, though.
She said that happened when she started conditioning with Blanchard, who also lives in Sonoma.
“My mom would take me in the jogging stroller when I when I was little, and I always kinda wanted to try it. Then I ran on the weekends with Coach Blanchard and I really liked it.”
Justin-Siena head coach Chris Fidler, who is in his first year teaching coaching at his alma mater after doing the same at St. Vincent-Petaluma, said Bullick has made his first season at the Braves’ helm memorable. During Saturday’s CIF North Coast Section Championships at Hayward High School, nobody was sure she had made it to the state meet until the Division IV race were posted. She finished ninth in 19:39, and advanced by placing fourth among the five individuals not on qualifying teams and among the top 16 runners overall.
“She came across the finish line and I was hanging out with a couple of parents, and we thought she might have made it because she was up toward the front. But we didn’t want to celebrate until we were sure,” Fidler said.
“When she came out this year it was clear she was going to be the leader for our girls team. She’s one of our hardest workers, and she’s continued to drop time steadily all the way through the season. She came in first or second in a number of the meets we ran in the (Marin County Athletic League), and ended up doing very, very well at the league finals, too. She’s made terrific progress all season and it’s paying off.”
Bullick slashed 21⁄2 minutes off her section-meet time of a year ago.
“I knew I had a good time, but I didn’t know it was going to get me into state,” she said. “I was kinda surprised, but I’m excited. I really like the sport so I was happy to make it and extend the season. It’s mostly for the experience this year, to see the course. I’m hoping maybe I’ll have another shot again.”
Blanchard wasn’t surprised to see Bullick reach the state meet.
“She shows extreme dedication and a deep love of the sport,” the coach said. “She comes from running royalty, being her grandfather was an outstanding runner. He was nicknamed ‘Spider’ because of his leggy physique, which Teal fortunately shares and works to her advantage. The state championship in Fresno will include a very competitive field and we look forward to seeing her gain experience in that venue. We wish her luck in the race.”