Cross country bolstered by new faces

Cross country team
Bolstered by a crop of fresh faces who have already made an impact in the early season, the Banana Slugs returned a core group from last year’s squad, which placed seventh at the NCAA West Regionals. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Sophomore Paul Colosi last season became the first freshman harrier from UC Santa Cruz to reach the NCAA cross country championships—and the first male overall since 2012. He earned a spot on the all-region team after garnering a 15th-place finish at the NCAA Division III West Regionals, and he was named Male Runner of the Year and Male Rookie of the Year by the Association of D-III Independents.

But, despite those accolades, the Corralitos native isn’t necessarily feeling the pressure to top his campaign from a year ago. Rather, Colosi is feeling the squeeze from his teammates—and he’s welcoming it.

“I feel like there’s a little bit of pressure from the incoming freshmen,” said an excited Colosi, who made his season debut with a third-place finish at the Las Positas Invitational on Sept. 15.

“We have a lot more depth this year,” he added. “And in the long term, I think this team is going to do very well.”

While the women’s team will be looking to fill the void left by top runner Shannon McClish, who this year is studying abroad in Switzerland, the men’s team enters as a more solidified unit.

Bolstered by a crop of fresh faces who have already made an impact in the early season, the Banana Slugs returned a core group from last year’s squad, which placed seventh at the NCAA West Regionals. Anchored by Colosi, a graduate of St. Francis High in Watsonville, the youthful Slugs boast plenty of talent that will continue to improve this year and next.

In fact, only one senior—Takehiro Yamaya (Redondo Beach)—is listed on the 19-runner men’s team, which counts seven freshmen. Kellen O’Neill (Arcata) and Nick Kleiber (Oakland), among others, have shined in early meets for the Slugs.

“The whole freshmen group is talented,” said first-year coach David Klech, who last season was an assistant under head coach Jamey Harris. Klech, a two-time All-American at the University of Oregon, where he later coached, believes the Slugs can better last year’s finish at regionals.

Regionals this year are scheduled for Nov. 11 at Pomona-Pitzer.

“It’s going to be a challenge to decide who the top seven (runners) are by the end of the season,” Klech said. “We had athletes step up during track season (in the spring) and there are a slew of freshmen who want to earn spots.”

Twice recording a season-best time of 26 minutes, 7 seconds across 8,000 meters, Colosi last season was one of three Slugs who earned all-region honors. Returners Zahid Anjum (Santa Clara), a sophomore, and junior Dante Capone (Sebastopol) also earned all-region recognition after garnering a top-35 spot at West Regionals.

Sophomore Raymond Breault (Brisbane), who recorded a season-best 27:19 as a freshman—and who lists Colosi as his favorite athlete—had a strong track season for the Slugs. Although he’s a “speed guy,” Klech said, Breault is still expected to contribute for UCSC.

Also showcasing a strong track season was Draven Hawk, a junior who was sidelined last season because of injuries. Hawk, a Scotts Valley High alum, led the Slugs at West Regionals as a freshman in 2015.

“He’s at a level of fitness we’re definitely excited about,” Klech said of Hawk, who made his season debut with a 13th-place finish at the Las Positas Invitational.

Klech featured the freshmen during UCSC’s first meet, the Notre Dame de Namur Invitational at Crystal Springs on Sept. 2. There, O’Neill and Kleiber paced the Slugs to a third-place finish, clocking respective times of 28:02 and 28:12.

Other freshmen who have impressed include Dante De Los Santos (Napa) and Sean Reidel (Boulder, Colo.), who has looked strong in workouts, Klech said.

“He had very fast times in high school, much faster than when I was in high school,” Colosi said of O’Neill, who garnered Runner of the Week honors by the Association of D-III Independents following the Sept. 2 race.

Slugs freshman Carrie Bradley (Truckee) also earned Runner of the Week honors after she ran to an 11th-place finish at Crystal Springs, recording a 26:06.5 across six kilometers.

Noting McClish placed 10th at Crystal Springs during a 5k race last season, Klech said Bradley has been a welcomed surprise.

“She likes to work hard and I think she’s going to work hard at UC Santa Cruz,” Klech said.

The loss of McClish will, no doubt, have an impact on the Slugs, though. Although McClish is expected to re-join the program next year, the Slugs’ top runner from a year ago was coming off a campaign in which she qualified for the national championships and earned all-region accolades.

“I think whenever you lose your star, it’s a challenge,” Klech said.

McClish’s departure will force others to step up, which could benefit the Slugs next season.

The Slugs count three seniors and five freshmen on their 17-runner roster. Along with Bradley, freshmen Allie Lourim (Sacramento), Abby Klein (Torrance) and Victoria Mitchell (Bentonville, Ark.) have either contributed or turned heads in the early season.

“Big shoes to fill, for sure,” said junior Sydney Gutierrez (San Francisco), a top returner for UCSC who narrowly missed all-region status at last season’s West Regional. “Not sure we’ll reach (McClish’s) speed, but I think everyone has the potential to improve and I think our team looks pretty strong right now.”

Gutierrez said the Slugs will still try and reach McClish’s times.

“Everyone wants to be as good as Shannon,” she said.

Klech expects the women’s team to compete as it builds toward regionals, maybe even surprise a few teams along the way. The Slugs coach is excited to watch Autumn Burton (Rocklin) as she begins her senior season, along with Lizzie Meredith (Newcastle) and Bella Demachkie (Santa Barbara).

“Sometimes for senior athletes, when they know it’s their last one …” Klech said.

Burton posted a first-place finish (19:43.2) at the Las Positas Invitational. Bradley (20:00.9) and Gutierrez (20:20.1) were second and third, respectively, at the meet, which featured mostly community colleges.

The Slugs are slated to compete in Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Claremont and Sunnyvale prior to West Regionals.

“We’ve got a strong pack and if we’re healthy in November,” Klech said, “we’re pretty excited with what we can do there.”