Courtesy of Jason Napier
Members of the Liberty Hawks girls cross country team and coaching staff gathers after winning the Div. V Valley Championship last week at Woodward Park. The team will participate in this year’s CIF State Cross Country Championships today, also at Woodward Park. Their race takes off at 1 p.m.
After the first two runners crossed the finish line in Liberty Hawks uniforms, head coach Jason Napier had to wait it out before the final results were revealed in the Div. V Central Section Cross Championship in Fresno’s Woodward Park.
In the end, led by Div. V individual Valley Champion Mattison McCombs, the Hawks defeated Sierra Pacific-Hanford by four points for the first cross country Valley Championship in school history.
“Going in, I thought we would have a lead, but didn’t know by how much,” Napier said. “I didn’t realize it was going to be that much of a nail biter. I was watching Sierra Pacific come in. In that last mile, going to the finish, we weren’t winning. I don’t know what was going to happen. I was waiting for them to declare a winner. I didn’t know. We were trying to do the math and it was too close. Brianna Burgess, in that last mile, picked off a couple of Sierra Pacific girls, which actually changed the race. It’s really fantastic. We have been talking about it, thinking about it and dreaming, mostly. For it to actually happen is an amazing accomplishment for our team.”
Along with McCombs, Sophia Napier, Burgess, Kassidy Afonin, Madison Bento, Sophia Avila and Rebecca Loquaci, helped the Hawks to the championship.
“This has been a three-year project when Sophia Napier came in,” coach Napier said. “When she started, she had some good runners ahead of her. Mattison McCombs and Brianna Burgess are seniors and have been a part of the program the whole time. She also had two other freshmen — Madison Bento and Rebecca Loquaci — come in with her. Those six girls have been training for three years to make this happen. They recognized that this was possible. And, on occasion, that this wasn’t possible. We’ve lost some runners over the last year who were with us and could have given us a nice bump. We had some girls that we had in place fill in those gaps and really step up and they did.”
“We worked really hard all season long,” McCombs said. “It all came down to numbers and passing people in front of us. All we were working on is pass the person in front of us because the more passes we get, the higher our chances are we would place and go to state. We’ve been working hard all year and it paid off.”
“We’ve been dreaming about this for a long time,” Sophia Napier said. “To have all our work pay off and get the program started from almost nothing to here, is the best feeling there is. It’s such a good feeling to win the title.”
McCombs won the race by beating teammate Napier in the last half of the race. She finished the race in 20:08.29, beating Napier by 14 seconds.
“I felt a little more determined than I usually did,” McCombs said. “Even coach said I looked more determined. I was kind of nervous thinking this could be my final race and I didn’t want it to be my last race. I guess, I had a little extra in my tank and I just went for it.
“We were together for the first mile and halfway through the second mile,” McCombs said. “When we were going up killer hill is when I passed her. I’ve always been a little better at hills. We were running together and she started slowing down. I left and didn’t see her after that. “
“She had it in here that day,” Napier said. “We normally run with each other for most of the race. It comes to the last mile and who has it. That day, she definitely had it.”
McCombs said it will be a nice feeling to get a flag on the gym wall next to Liberty Valley Champions Ryan Colebrook (track) and Richie Brandt (wrestling).
“This was crazy,” she said. “I’m still in shock still. I never thought that would happen. Considering this is my senior year, it makes me happy. It feels pretty cool. I didn’t think it was going to be me. It’s nice to get the recognition.”
Napier, a junior, came in behind McCombs in second place. She finished 24 seconds ahead of the third place runner.
“It’s been fun all year long,” Jason Napier said. “Every race, they have been trading back and forth. Sophia will be up and Mattison will be up. They work together and go out the first mile together. A lot of times, they are coming back in the final mile together. They push each other and make each other better. It’s given them a great opportunity to be successful, as teammates.”
“Next year, I want that Valley title,” Sophia said. “We just need to get our people back. We’re down to seven girls and we’re losing three. We’re hoping to recruit more.”
Finishing third on the team was senior Brianna Burgess, who coach Napier called the key runner. She finished the race in 13th place with a time of 22:29.11.
“On the day of the race, watching Brianna Burgess cross the finish line, even before crossed the line with about six or seven strides to go, she was smiling,” coach Napier said. “She recognized how big an impact she had. She said she didn’t know where it came from, but she was passing girls left and right in the last mile. If it wasn’t for her taking down those other athletes, there’s no way we would have won.”
Burgess placed two places ahead of two Sierra Pacific runners to earn key points for the Hawks.
Freshman Kassidy Afonin was fourth on the team in 32nd place in a time of 23:40.63.
“Obviosuly with Sophia and Mattie, our No. 3 with Burgess was fantastic,” Napier said. “We had a freshman girl, Kassidy Afoinin, who has only raced that distance on that course twice, was our No. 4. She was huge.”
Closing out the team scoring was Bento in 38th place with a time of 24:04.04.
Avila placed 44th and was sixth on the Hawks. Seventh on the Hawks was Loquaci in 53rd place.
Next for the Hawks will be CIF State Central Section Championships, also held at Woodward Park, the same competition the Hawks competed at two years ago.
McCombs, Napier, Bento and Burgess ran in that race. Liberty will start at 1 p.m. in the Div. V girls race.
“State was always definitely the goal,” Sophia Napier said. “Getting there is always nice. It’s like the icing on the cake. I definitely feel more prepared than my freshman year. It was kind of overwhelming the first time. There are so many people there. Woodward Park doesn’t even look like Woodward Park anymore. It’s absolutely insane. I think I’m ready.”
“Going to state previously, it’s going to be overwhelming,” McCombs said. “There’s so many people there and it’s going to be crazy. We have to go in and stay calm, focused and work hard.”
However, coach Napier hopes the experience of the state meet two years ago will prepare the girls for the race.
“We went to State in 2016,” he said. “We’re looking at a brand new group of kids. They’re not the same as they were two years ago. Our training is a little different. With the air quality the way it is, it messes with what we can do. It’s about having them re-focus after winning the Valley Championship. We want to stay positive about the opportunity.”
“We didn’t expect to run against so many people,” McCombs said. “We have run the course multiple times. Being familiar with the course makes it easier. The whole experience will help us by knowing what to expect the struggles to get out when we start. Having someone to run with will be good, too.”
Napier has been preparing the Hawks for the state meet as the year has gone on.
“We chose a few different races the last two years to prepare us for State,” he said. “We were not prepared the last time. We weren’t training correctly. We didn’t realize how much the course changes with 200 athletes boxed into a space. We’ve made our adjustments during the season. We looked at those other races and this is what it’s going to be like and now you know better. Hopefully, they’ve learned from that.”
Joining the girls will be Liberty’s Ryan Avila, who placed seventh in the Div. V boys race last week.
“I kind of knew I had a chance,” he said. “I thought if I passed this guy, I would probably be for sure and that’s what I did.”
Avila finished in 17:36.69 to became the first Liberty male cross country runner to earn an individual state bid.
“It’s really exciting to get Ryan to state,” Napier said. “We have the makings of a really great boys team. Ryan, stepping in as a first-year runner and getting that feel necessary to get everybody something to look forward to, to look at to be as dominant as he was all year long, has actually been real fun. It’s kind of funny because we thought where did this kid come from.”
Avila, a sophomore, took up cross country to use up some pent up energy.
“One day, Napier said I had too much energy in art so he said to run cross country,” Avila said.
Originally, Avila thought cross country would help him condition for wrestling, his main sport.
“I thought this would help me for wrestling,” Avila said. “The wrestling coaches are happy for me, but they want me back.”
In the history of Madera cross country with Madera South winning multiple Valley Championships, Avila is the only runner in Madera to be running in the state meet.
“That’s crazy that I’m the only one,” he said. “It’s unreal to qualify for state. I was not expecting this when I first came out. I’m super excited for it.”
“We’ve been training and training and waiting for this to happen,” Napier said. “We’re excited that he has the opportunity to go and represent Liberty.”