As the Southern Section cross-country preliminaries came to a close Saturday, a collective sigh of relief seemed to echo through the hills surrounding Mt. San Antonio College.
As expected, Orange County's top teams--Corona del Mar and Dana Hills (boys) and Santa Ana Valley and Villa Park (girls)--passed another test, placing fourth or better in their heats to earn their way to the Southern Section championships next Saturday.
But pre-race nerves of coaches and athletes seemed skittery.
Tustin Coach Tom Coffey paced the muddy warm-up field while the Tillers stretched.
Villa Park Coach Dick Brunt cursed his luck as the Spartans had to run without their fifth girl, Heather McMasters, who stayed home to take a college preparatory test.
Still, Brunt's Spartans won their 4-A heat with 71 points.
Coffey can relax, as his Tillers advanced with a fourth-place finish.
Santa Ana Valley's Maricela Benavides placed second in her heat in 18 minutes 48 seconds and can think ahead to Saturday's finals, in which she and her teammates will face powerful Palos Verdes, the top-ranked team in 4-A.
While many teams raced just fast enough to qualify for the finals, the day was not without several exceptional performances from Orange County runners.
Terrence Mahon of La Habra won his 3-A heat in 15:27, the fastest Orange County performance.
Other top boys' performances included: Marina's Shanon Winkelman (15:31), Dana Hills' Mike Tansley (15:37) and El Dorado's Oliver Bohlman (15:42).
Martha Pinto, a Katella freshman, won her 3-A heat in 18:45, the fastest time for an Orange County girl. And Valencia freshman Heather Killeen finished in 18:49.
Palos Verdes, top-ranked in both boys' and girls' 4-A, cruised to easy wins.
The Corona del Mar and Dana Hills boys' teams continued their weekly comparison without running in the same race. The Sea Kings' team time (80:37) was four seconds faster than the Dolphins'.
Next week, both teams will face each other in the same race for the first time this season.
The Newport Harbor boys, unranked all year, finished fourth in their heat with 149 points behind fifth-ranked Antelope Valley (85), seventh-ranked Thousand Oaks (83) and Palos Verdes.
Canyon's Brett Schultz (15:49) and Santa Ana's Roger Nava (15:53) placed third in their heats, surprising many top runners.
The Mater Dei girls, unranked in both the county and the 3-A, squeezed by with a fourth-place finish to advance to the finals.