The Corona del Mar High School boys' cross-country team, top-ranked in Orange County and the Southern Section 4-A, can breathe easily again.
But only for about 1.5 seconds, the scant amount of time that separated the Sea Kings (78 minutes, 27.6 seconds) from Dana Hills (78:29.1) Saturday, as Corona del Mar won the Orange County cross-country championships at Irvine Park.
"We get bragging rights for one whole day," Sea King Coach Bill Sumner said. "Then it's back to the battle."
Saturday's battle proved to be fierce from the start.
Corona del Mar, running in the first and what turned out to be the fastest of four varsity heats, received fine performances from its top three runners--Eddie Lavelle (fourth, 15:17), Jim Robbins (sixth, 15:21) and Greg Shryock (ninth, 15:38).
But it might have been the exceptional performances of the Sea Kings' fourth and fifth runners, Paul Scott (13th, 16:01) and Hunter Pierce (15th, 16:11), that made the small, but crucial, difference.
Of course, for some, it was a day of might-have-beens.
"When it's that close, you just wish they could have won by 20 seconds," Dana Hills Coach Tim Butler said. "Otherwise, you keep wondering, 'What if?' "
There was no question, however, who would be the overall individual champion. Terrence Mahon of La Habra settled that question at the first mile mark in the talent-packed first heat.
Mahon, a senior, broke away from the pack at that point, with Igor Daza of Valencia a step behind. Mahon hit the first hill, surged up and over the crest and left Daza about 30 yards back.
"He was so strong," Daza said. "He just broke away like it was nothing."
Continuing alone, Mahon increased his lead before finishing in 14:55.
"I really thought the others would stay with me," Mahon said. "I thought it would come down to the finish, or at least the last mile."
That was the case for most of the top 10 finishers.
As Daza struggled to hold on for second (15:14), Rodger Nava, a junior at Santa Ana, worked his way from the middle of the pack at the mile to 10th place with less than a mile remaining. Nava, who was not expected to be a factor in the race because of limited training in the past few months, surged the final 400 yards and passed several top runners to finish third (15:16).
"To tell you the truth, I didn't ever expect to beat Lavelle and those other Corona (del Mar) guys," Nava said. "I just wanted to help the team, so I went for it."
In the girls' division, Santa Ana Valley protected its top county ranking by outrunning second-ranked Villa Park.
The Falcons, led by Maricela Benavides, the fastest senior of the day at 18:26, compiled a team time of 98:01, which was 44 seconds faster than Villa Park (98:45).
Following Benavides were a pack of teammates--Maria Vargas (sixth, 19:24), Linda Villa (11th, 19:52), Teresa Beltran (12th, 20:03) and Eva Orozco (18th, 20:16)--giving the team its best performance this season.
The best individual performance was anything but expected.
Freshman Martha Pinto of Katella ran the fastest time of the day, but, according to her coach, Mike Cochrane, she "had no idea what she was doing."
Pinto asked Cochrane for strategy advice before her race, the third varsity heat. Cochrane pointed to Benavides, who was running past with a 100-yard lead in the first heat.
"I just told her to watch how Maricela does it . . . to just go for it," Cochrane said. "I think her (Pinto's) race surprised the heck out of everyone."
Pinto had a 20-yard lead by the half-mile mark and held it all the way to win in 18:24.