The St. Helena High cross country team accomplished something historic at the North Coast Section Meet of Champions on Saturday at Hayward High School.
For the first time in school history, the Saints are sending multiple runners to this Saturday’s CIF State Championships at Woodward Park in Fresno.
Both junior Harper McClain and senior Jordan Reilly turned in qualifying times at the NCS meet.
Reilly, the first St. Helena boy to qualify for state since Brian Cole in 2006, completed the three-mile race with a qualifying time of 15 minutes, 55 seconds, good for eighth place in Division 5.
McClain, who has been one of the top girls distance runners in the state since bursting onto the running scene for the Saints’ track and field team last spring, finished in 17:04. It was the fastest girls time of the day from any of the five divisions competing. It was also a new Division 5 course record and just the most recent string of record-setting performances she’s piled up this season.
McClain’s historic autumn
To say what McClain has accomplished this season is historic would be an understatement.
It’s unprecedented, really.
The junior has been on the competitive distance running scene for less than year and has already become one of top girls in the state, if not the country. Herdell said Oregon, Oregon State, Tulane, Duke, Gonzaga and the Air Force Academy have all expressed interest in the junior. Many more schools are sure to follow as McClain racks up more and more jaw-dropping finishes.
Word of her prowess has already spread throughout the area.
“Those of us that know her and have seen her run these last few years, we know she’s fast. But it was interesting how when we got to the other meets, the other schools were excited to watch her run,” Herdell said. “Other parents and other kids were really supportive of her because it’s just fun to see something you don’t see all the time.
“She’s running with the boys. She’s running as fast as varsity boys. It’s pretty surreal to think that it’s something she can keep up with. She’s definitely very talented and very athletic and works really hard and you can tell that she puts in her training time.”
Like some of her other coaches, Herdell said she doesn’t deserve any credit for McClain’s success, that the junior has maintained this level of sustained excellence almost entirely through research and practice on her own time. Herdell explained that McClain is really still learning about distance running and has done so by watching YouTube videos and reading articles on form, breathing techniques and running strategies.
So despite still being a self-taught, relative novice, especially with cross country, she’s shattered record after record this fall, doing so with ease.
“It seems like with most of the runners you can tell when it’s like a really hilly course or it’s flat, but she was just super consistent,” Herdell said. “It was like any time there was an incline, it didn’t even faze her. She’s just so incredibly strong and she enjoys that. She was excited when there were hills.
“Some people were like ‘Oh that was a hard course.’ I never heard her say that.”
The state meet will be actually McClain’s second time running at Woodward Park this fall. She participated in the Clovis Invitational, one of the most prestigious meets in the country, there in October and finished third with a time of 17:10.
No matter how she does at state, her season won’t be over after Saturday. Herdell said that she’s also going to compete in the Nike Cross Nationals Dec. 7 in Portland, Oregon, where she’ll race against some of the top runners in the country.
Reilly earns state appearance
By his own right, Reilly’s senior season has been equally as impressive. While he may not be breaking the records like McClain is, he’s consistently improved in each of his four years on the team and will cap off his career with his first trip to Fresno.
Herdell, who has been coaching Reilly since he was a freshman, said she noticed his level of intensity and focus spike after track and field in the spring. All that hard work and training over the summer paid off with his best season yet.
“He’s grown so much in his running since freshman year,” Herdell said. “He’s always been fast and had lots of energy and focus, but he really worked hard since track last year, just trying to shave time. He’s been training to be better. He’s really put a lot into it. He’s coming in with some really crazy times, just crazy fast.”
Herdell also said that she’s seen the senior come into his own this fall, becoming a team leader. But, she added, taking on that role of the seasoned veteran was not an easy process.
“I think being the senior was a little bit different for him because he’s always been the young guy on the team, the small guy on the team, and had a lot of older leaders to show him the ropes,” the coach said. “So this year we really kind of butted heads at the beginning because I was telling him he really needed to be a role model and a leader for these other runners. The team nominated him as their captain.”
But in the end, he embraced the role and has helped the team thrive.
“I think for him, not only with the training part, he had to really wrap his head around being a team leader, someone that these young kids can really look up to. That kind of added another layer to his experience this year,” Herdell said. “But I definitely saw him mature and grow just in the last three months with that role, so that was good to see.”
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No matter how he fares at Woodward Park against the state’s best, this season has undeniably been a success for Reilly, all thanks to his dedication and hard work.
Big Saints team turns in stellar season
McClain and Reilly have been the top performers for the Saints all fall and led the team in what was a strong overall season.
St. Helena had one of it largest cross country teams in years with 28 runners, 12 girls and 16 boys, comprised of a balanced group of boys and girls from all classes.
This year, St. Helena had seven freshmen (Oliver Wolf, Erin Ries-Juncker, Talia Ricci, Reginald Oliver, Cleo McClain, Andrew Hileman and Haven Demchuk), eight sophomores (Maxwell Cline, Fiona Crowley, Anjali Felder, Alejandro Guzman, Jasper Henry, Robert Przybylinski, Kai Randall-Darter and Logan Uhlig), five juniors (Harper McClain, William Garrett, Sienna Beringer, Jade Schlatter and Will Wesner) and eight seniors (Reilly, Holden Smith, Eva Eisentraut, Quinn Randall-Darter, Emma Pierce, Liam Milliken, Kristina Isdahl and Sofia Gott).
It was one of the biggest squads that fourth-year head coach Sarah Herdell has had during her tenure. The size actually created some hurdles she had to navigate through, such as having to choose only seven runners for the Coastal Mountain Conference Championship Meet on Nov. 13.
“One thing that was like a Catch-22 was it was really hard for me to put together our seven varsity runners from number 4 through 7, just because we had so many kids who were so close and could have done really well in those positions,” Herdell said.
Granted, she conceded that having too much talent to choose from was a good problem to have as a coach.
As a unit, the Saints turned in a solid overall year, with the boys and girls teams each winning four of their six league meets in the fall. At CMCs two weeks ago, both the boys and girls varsity squads finished second in the North Central League I team competition, while the Saints JV boys, a team comprised of mainly varsity runners, won the JV team title.
Reilly finished second in the NCL I race and third overall among all CMC runners, while McClain completed the 3.05-mile course at Spring Lake Park in 17:18, a meet record and the ninth-fastest time ever run at the course.
“It all worked out great for us,” Herdell said. “So, we were excited about the results.”
From there a group of 13 Saints, six girls and seven boys, advanced to compete at the NCS Meet of Champions on Saturday. Aside from Reilly and McClain’s historic results, the other 11 Saints in attendance also turned in strong performances to end their seasons.
Their results in the Division 5 races were:
70. Cleo McClain, 17:45
116. Jasper Henry, 19:00
127. Robert Przybylinski, 19:13
145. Andrew Hileman, 19:54
157. Holden Smith, 20:05
168. William Wesner, 20:53
72. Jade Schlatter, 22:20
100. Erin Reis-Juncker, 23:52
102. Talia Ricci, 24:06
113. Siena Beringer, 27:02
115. Haven Demchuk, 27:24