Golden Valley coach Jaqueline Wooding has seen the scene over and over again at the finish line of cross country meets.
“Kids come across the finish line and just lay down,” Wooding said. “They’re huffing and puffing. I tell our kids, ‘That’s not going to be you.’ We work too hard at practice.”
So there was Wooding at the finish line at the Sac-Joaquin Section meet this year watching as Cougars senior Mariyah Banks collapsed after finishing the race.
“She crossed the finish line and she lays down,” Wooding said. “I told her, ‘Mariyah, get up.’ She just shook her head. She said, ‘Coach, did I make it?’ ”
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Wooding wasn’t sure. She had tried to count the runners as she crossed the finish line, but she didn’t want to be the coach that told her runner she made it only to be wrong. It was only after checking the results on her phone later that she could share the news that Banks had qualified for the state meet.
“She had a big smile on her face,” Wooding said. “She needed that moment to herself and I could appreciate that.”
For Merced’s Abel Aleman, this season wasn’t about his individual success. It was about the Bears ending a 20-year drought by winning a Central California Conference championship.
“If I could have picked us winning league over me making it to state, I would have picked the league title,” Aleman said. “It wasn’t about me. It was about the team.”
Aleman did his part in leading the Bears to the league title, winning all three CCC center meets.
For their efforts, Banks and Aleman are the Sun-Star Cross Country Athletes of the Year.
Banks became the first girl to compete at the state meet in school history. She worked hard to prepare for this season after sitting out last year with a knee injury.
“I dedicated myself, I worked really hard,” Banks said. “I worked hard on my own this summer. I went on a diet. I usually eat a lot of fast food. I cut down on that and ate a lot of fish and chicken. I had to force myself to eat mixed vegetables. I’m not a big fan. I could tell the difference after eating better.”
Like Aleman, Banks went on to win all three CCC center meets. However, even with the success she still battled nerves.
She threw up before every race. When she got to state, the nerves only got worse.
“I actually threw up three times before state,” Banks said. “I was tense the entire race. I throw up before every meet, but not three times. I didn’t run a great race, but it was a great experience.”
Aleman came up short of qualifying for state, but he emerged as the top runner in the CCC. His top time of 15 minutes and 28 seconds came in his win at Donnelly Park in Turlock.
Like Banks, Aleman put in the work during the offseason.
“I was up at 5 in the morning and out running,” Aleman said. “I’d also run at 8 at night. I tried to get as many miles as I could. I also ran hills and stairs. I worked hard to get where I’m at right now.”
Not only was Aleman winning, but Merced was also racking up the wins to earn its first CCC title in two decades. Aleman was a leader, working with his teammates on race strategies.
That’s why the team’s success was so rewarding.
“It was amazing,” Aleman said. “I was grateful for our team. We all worked hard and put in time. Winning league was unbelievable. When our year goes on the banner in the gym, I’ll be proud. No words can explain how it’ll feel when that happens.”