Excitement, growth surround track and field program

An impressive crop of freshmen from across the state and country will help lead the Slugs’ continued development.

In November, the UC Santa Cruz men’s cross country team capped a historic season by qualifying to the NCAA Division III Championships for the first time. Led by sophomore Paul Colosi and freshman Nick Kleiber, among others, the Banana Slugs finished second at the West Regional, placed 26th in the nation, and later swept the end-of-season awards handed out by the Association of the Division III Independents.

Replicating that sort of team success this spring in track and field won’t be easy, of course, if it happens at all. Individuals qualify to the national championships in track—not teams, like in cross country—and making it that far has not been a level reached by any Slug in program history.

But the effect the cross country team’s exceptional fall campaign is having on the track program this spring should not be ignored. Motivation remains high among the returning harriers who competed at the national championships just three months ago, while the accomplishment is inspiring others and providing a level of success the track program hopes to reach in the near future.

UC Santa began its 2018 track and field campaign at the Kim Duyst Invitational in Turlock. The team will compete in the Hornet Invitational at Sacramento State on March 16–17.

“It’s very exciting, to have a group qualify to the NCAA’s (for cross country). In terms of track and field, there was definitely an excitement among the men and women,” said first-year track coach David Klech, who in the fall coached the Slugs’ cross country team and was named Coach of the Year by AD3I. A two-time All-American at the University of Oregon, where he later coached, Klech was an assistant under UC Santa Cruz head coach Jamey Harris last season.

“We’re really trying to set up a competitive program on the West Coast,” Klech said.

Excitement surrounds the program as it continues to grow. While the women are in their seventh year of competition, Klech said, this is just the third for the men. And last year was the first year UCSC competed in every event—with the lone exception being women’s heptathlon, Klech said.

An impressive crop of freshmen will look to lead the Slugs’ continued development. Victoria Mitchell (Bentonville High/Bentonville, Ark.) joins the Slugs after winning an Arkansas state title in the 800 meters as a high school junior, while newcomer Abby McPhillips (Oak Park High/Oak Park, Calif.) qualified to the prestigious California state meet in the high jump as a sophomore.

On the men’s side, freshman Conrad Pereira (Chantilly High/Fairfax, Va.) last year competed in his high school state championship in both the high jump and 4x400. He is expected to compete in the sprint events as well as the high jump, long jump, and triple jump, Klech said. Mason Pierce (Colfax High/Meadow Vista, Calif.), meanwhile, advanced to the California state meet last year in the pole vault.

Pierce cleared 15 feet, 6 inches to qualify for the state meet, tying a Colfax High School record, according to the Colfax Record.

“He’s another very good recruit. He’s exceptional in the pole vault,” Colosi, a team captain, said of Pierce.

Colosi, who in the fall was named Male Runner of the Year by the AD3I for the second year in a row, said also freshmen Kleiber (Oakland Tech/Oakland, Calif.) and Kellen O’Neill (Arcata High/Arcata, Calif.) have been standouts. Both were members of the Slugs’ cross country team, with Kleiber earning top frosh honors.

“They both had impressive cross country seasons and we’re excited for what that holds in track season,” Klech said.

Cross-country runners make up roughly half the athletes competing for the track and field program, so their prior success bodes well as they transfer to events like the 800 and 1,500 meters, the 5 and 10 kilometers, and the 3-kilometer steeplechase.

Colosi (St. Francis High/Corralitos, Calif.) said the cross country team’s solid season helped runners stay motivated through winter break, some of whom returned in better shape. Colosi is expected to make an impact in the middle- to long-distance events, alongside Kleiber, O’Neill, and fellow harriers Draven Hawk (Scotts Valley High/Scotts Valley, Calif.) and Dante Capone (Analy High/Sebastopol, Calif.).

“It does carry over, in the sense that we built up a lot of fitness during cross country,” Colosi said. “With cross country, everything builds on itself. Your freshman year of cross country builds into freshman track. Your sophomore year of cross country builds into sophomore track. By senior year, you can build upon all the miles from seasons prior.

“I think we’re running really well right now due to the success we had in cross country. It’s a good springboard into track.”

In that vein, sophomore Raymond Breault (St. Ignatius Prep/Brisbane, Calif.) showed significant improvement during cross country season, Klech said, and is looking to continue that trend in the 800. The head coach felt similarly with the performance of sophomore Tyler Rule (Huntington Beach High/Huntington Beach, Calif.), who is expected to compete in the steeplechase.

Senior Davis Kepon (Foothill High/Redding, Calif.) and junior transfer Brandon Nicely (Bonita High/La Verne, Calif.) will provide depth in the sprints and hurdles, respectively. Both will compete in the multi-events.

Kepon, who last season was strong in the high jump and javelin for UCSC, will be making his decathlon debut, while Nicely will look to build upon his 2017 campaign in which he placed sixth in the event at the California Community College Athletic Association Track and Field Championships.

Nicely is a transfer from Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif.

“So we’ve definitely come a long way, in terms of developing (the program) and reaching out to more people who specialize in different events,” said junior Sydney Gutierrez, who garnered Female Runner of the Year honors during cross country season.

During her freshman year, Gutierrez (Lowell High/San Francisco) recalls the team having only one sprinter. Depth is less of an issue now.

Klech is expecting impressive times—and distances—from sophomore Siena Benavides (Arvin High/Arvin, Calif.), who set personal records in both the 100 meters and long jump at last year’s West Coast Last Chance in San Francisco. Klech said junior Natalie Marquardt (Morro Bay High/Morro Bay, Calif.) transitioned from the middle distances last season to both the 200 and 400, a changeover junior Nancy Alvarado-Zavaleta (Garfield High/Los Angeles) will be tasked with this season.

McPhillips, the state qualifier in the high jump, is also a good sprinter, Klech said, while freshman Melanie Wong (Irvington High/Fremont, Calif.) joins the Slugs following an extensive high school career in the hurdles.

“And we’re excited to see what she can do as a Slug,” Klech said of Wong.

Sophomore Jordynn Dorado (Nipomo High/Nipomo, Calif.) is a name to watch this season. A year ago the then-freshman was ranked in the top 15 in the West Region in the shot put, discus, and hammer throw.

“And she had a tremendous offseason,” Klech said.

Like the men, the women’s middle- to long-distance runners enter the season already warmed up. Gutierrez will try and use her successful cross country campaign to shine in the 800 and 1,500 meters. She said the success of the men’s cross country team has pushed her to work harder.

“It definitely drives me, to want to be better,” Gutierrez said. “And work harder. The idea is in my head and the other girls as well.”

Fellow harriers Allie Lourim (St. Francis High/Sacramento) and Abby Klein (West Torrance High/Torrance, Calif.) will provide depth in the distance events, while freshman Carrie Bradley (Tahoe-Truckee High/Truckee, Calif.) will try and earn accolades in the 1,500 and 5,000.

Bradley was named Rookie of the Year by AD3I in the fall. Gutierrez hopes that season is a sign of things to come at UCSC.

“Because they were able to take their running ability so far,” Gutierrez said of the men’s cross country team, “I think it shows how promising the whole program could be.”