ATWATER — Abraham Alvarado leaned forward, extending his head and shoulders through the finish line.
To state ... by a nose.
Actually, it wasn't even that close, this final-meters, huff-and-puff sprint between Alvarado and Folsom's Sam Scheuer at the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 2 Championship in Folsom.
Both advanced to Saturday's CIF State Cross Country Championship with the last two individual berths, but in the home stretch at Willow Hills Reservoir in Folsom neither could be certain.
Neither senior could leave anything to chance.
So Alvarado, Atwater's cross country and track champion, did what he does so often: He finished strong, clocking a lifetime best 16 minutes, 15 seconds -- a fraction of a second faster than Scheuer.
"He had that urgency that seniors sometimes have," Atwater coach Ken Rhoades said of Abraham. "They know if they don't get in that top-5 individual their season is going to end.
"I think he felt, and I felt, that he'd be there in the end. ... He literally out-leaned the kids from Folsom. That was true to form. I had a feeling if he was there, he'd find a way to get it done. He had good instincts at the end of the race."
Traditionally, Alvarado, his blue Falcons jersey hanging loosely atop his shoulders, does his best work around the holiday. He's spent the last few summers in Mexico visiting family, and the extended vacations have often come at the expense of his training.
Instead of running, his hours were consumed by travel and play. He had every intention of keeping his shape, he says, but those moments with his aunts, uncles and cousins were simply too hard to pass up.
"Every year I say I'm going to train, but I never have time," said Alvarado, 17. "We're always doing something. I don't get to see them often. Really, I only see them once a year."
With that in mind, the first few months of his cross country season simply are a warm-up for faster finishes in October and November.
In 2011, Alvarado recovered in time to win the Central California Conference championship. He'd miss a state berth by 6 seconds, but would eventually go on to claim the CCC's distance titles -- the 1,600 and 3,200 meters -- in track in the spring.
It hasn't come as easy this fall. Alvarado failed to defend his CCC cross country title. Pitman's Isaac Gonzalez was named the MVP, but was a non-factor in the postseason after he was ruled ineligible.
Alvarado gladly picked up the torch. He finished the conference's cluster format with a victory, edging Gonzalez by 5 seconds, and has carried that momentum into the postseason.
His assault on Willow Hills was 17 seconds faster than his time at the sub-section, and he improved his overall finish by five spots, jumping from 14th at Frogtown to ninth in Folsom.
"Last year I missed state by a couple of spots, and I didn't want to be in that situation again," said Alvarado, who hopes to crack the 16-minute barrier on Saturday. "I was hurting but I toughened up and forgot about the pain.
"There were a lot of people cheering me on and I tried to put on a good race for them."
It was a performance Rhoades anticipated from his late-bloomer.
"Abraham, he's peaked well at the end," Rhoades said. "He won the last league meet and has had great workouts in recent weeks.
"He's peaking well, which is how his seasons have unfolded every year. ... He's worked hard, had a good game plan and just been a really savvy racer."
With a nose for the finish.
James Burns is the Regional Sports Content Editor of The Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2324.