By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
It was an overcast, rainy Saturday morning in San Jose and Menlo School water polo coach Jack Bowen was just about to be pushed and dragged into the pool at Independence High as the Knights celebrated their Central Coast Section championship.
Standing off to the side watching the celebration unfold was Menlo junior Daniel Pugliese. He was still wearing his dark blue robe and his No. 14 cap, as dry as when the match started.
Pugliese did not play in the 2010 CCS championship match, which pretty much summed up his three years with the team at that point. Certainly, there would not be a fourth year of watching others play.
"I wasn't the best at it," Pugliese said of his water polo career. "And, I wasn't getting the opportunity to play. I loved the sport, but it wasn't working out."
So, Pugliese hung up his polo cap and decided to try something new.
"I had run cross country in middle school," he said. "And, I had swum a number of years. I wanted to do triathlons (swimming, biking and running) so I figured this was a good way to start."
Pugliese knew a couple of the other runners on the Menlo cross-country team, including then-senior Sam Parker, the 2010 West Bay Athletic League individual champion and seventh-place finisher at CCS.
"I didn't expect much of it," Pugliese said of his debut season of running, which began with a 33rd place in the Division IV race at the Stanford Invitational.
"I was the first Menlo boy," Pugliese said. "I thought to myself, hey, not bad."
That first race was just the kind of confidence-builder that Pugliese needed. From there, his season just took off as he won individual titles in the league races, capped with a triumph at the WBAL Championships last Friday at Crystal Springs in Belmont. His time of 16:02.3 was a personal best on the rolling 2.95-mile course.
"I thought it was great that I was doing so well, but not that I would follow him (Parker)," Pugliese said.
Pugliese's season has been one right out of a storybook, a true rags-to-riches tale that is not yet over.
Pugliese and his teammates will toe the starting line once again on Saturday at the 2011 CCS Championships, also at Crystal Springs. The boys' Division IV race (Menlo, Sacred Heart Prep) starts at 10 a.m. and is the first of the day. The Division IV girls (Menlo, Sacred Heart Prep) follow at 10:35 a.m. The Division V boys and girls (Priory, Castilleja, Pinewood) follow beginning at 11:10 a.m. with the Division I boys (Gunn, Menlo-Atherton) going off at 12:20 p.m., followed by the girls (Gunn, M-A, Palo Alto) at 12:55 p.m.
While Pugliese wasn't able to contribute to the Menlo water polo team's success last season, he definitely has factored into the cross-country team's success. His winning time in the WBAL finals ranks him seventh among Division IV entrants. Four runners ahead of him, however, are on teams expected to qualify for the state meet. That leaves Pugliese in solid position to earn an at-large berth for the state finals and a chance to continue his very interesting season.
Too bad there's no pool to jump into to celebrate.
"I'm still learning how to pace properly and take the hills," he said. "The (Menlo) coaching staff and other runners have helped me those things up."
Pugliese is headed into uncharted territory this weekend, given where he came from. There were no thoughts of even qualifying for CCS when the season began.
"Not at the beginning of the year," he said. "But, I'm looking forward to it."
So are quite a few others who have legitimate shots at qualifying for the CIF State Meet in Fresno on Nov. 26.
Two favorites for individual titles are Gunn sophomore Sarah Robinson and Priory senior Kat Gregory.
Robinson, who finished third at CCS last year, is the top returning finisher in Division I. She won the SCVAL El Camino Division title with a personal best of 17:32, which ranks her third overall among all the divisions and puts her nine seconds ahead of San Benito's Vanessa Estrada for Division I honors.
"Sarah is running very well and should challenge for the win," said Gunn assistant Ernie Lee.
Gregory, the two-time defending CCS Division V champion, is an overwhelming favorite for a three-repeat. Her best time of 18:12 at Crystal this season is the only Division V time among the overall top 50 this season.
Like Robinson, Gregory could stop and tie her shoelaces and still win easily.
Gregory cruised to a second straight WBAL title in 18:44 last Friday at Crystal, but was coming off eight days of no running while recuperating from a sprained ankle. She helped her team qualify for CCS and now the Panthers are in position to join Crystal Springs and Castilleja as state meet qualifiers from Division V.
Other teams predicted as state qualifiers include the Menlo-Atherton boys in Division I and Priory boys in Division V.
With seniors Michael Hester and Jack Beckwith leading the way, the Bears could finish second to Carlmont or third behind Bellarmine. Gunn has an outside shot, at best.
"There are just too many good teams in D1 boys for our guys to have a shot at top two," Lee said.
If the Titans don't qualify as a team, senior Andrew Prior could advance as an individual. He was 10th last season in 16:17, but ran 15:50 in the league meet and ranks 23rd at Crystal among all runners this season.
The Gunn girls, meanwhile, do have a shot at qualifying as a team.
"We have the ability to place in the top two and advance to the state meet," Lee said. "But, we need to have everyone run well. The girls are excited to give it a shot."
The Gunn girls are predicted to finish fourth behind Carlmont, San Benito and Homestead, with Palo Alto listed fifth.
Paly freshman Katie Foug and junior Chika Kasahara could advance as individuals.
The Sacred Heart Prep boys and girls, who swept the WBAL team titles last week, aren't expected to do that Saturday. San Lorenzo Valley, Half Moon Bay and Carmel top the boys' Division IV list while SLV, Scotts Valley and Half Moon Bay are favored to repeat that 1-2-3 order from last season and qualify for state.
Sacred Heart Prep senior Zach Kaplan, second at the WBAL finals and 14th at CCS last year, is primed for a shot at a state meet berth along with Menlo sophomore Matt Myers.
In the girls' Division IV race, Sacred Heart Prep freshman Gillian Belton could challenge for a berth, as well.
In Division V, Pinewood freshman Nicole Colonna, who was seventh at the WBAL meet in 19:55 to earn an at-large berth to CCS, also could have a chance at advancing this weekend.