by David Kiefer
The first to greet Sylvia Pieslak as she crossed the finish line was Menlo-Atherton teammate Ashley Holt. As they hugged, celebrating a Central Coast Section title in the 1,600 relay, one could sense an emotional release of the disappointment and frustration they each felt after their performances earlier in the meet.
Each had the fastest times in the section going into their races, but both fell short, each being passed on the homestretch. Pieslak was second in the 400 meters, Holt was fourth in the 800, missing a state-meet berth in that event by one place.
Perhaps they couldn't completely forget the broken dreams, the disheartening feelings of helplessly watching others go by, knowing they had no more to give when they had to give most. But the relay was their saving grace, making the night as special as they had hoped it would be.
Euphoria is something Jeremy Riddle also knows. He ran to the boys' 800 title, giving Gunn its third CCS boys' 800 winner in as many years, following the precedent set by two-time champion Jason Williams.
Riddle ran the race exactly to plan. He let others control the pace, stayed out of trouble by refusing to get boxed in, and sprinted past the leaders on the final curve.
The task will be much more difficult at the state championships Friday and Saturday at Cerritos College in Norwalk.
˙The top three in each event at the CCS championships last Thursday at San Jose City College qualified. That includes Riddle and Pieslak in individual events, as well as Holt, freshman Merideth Barrett, and sophomore Chantelle Cappa of M-A's 1,600 relay team.
If Riddle can duplicate his winning effort of 1:54.14, he could reach the finals, but it's doubtful anyone can catch defending champion Michael Granville of Bell Gardens. Granville already has broken the national record for high school juniors this season, running a 1:47.96.
Two others in the state have broken 1:50 making, this as especially strong year for the 800. And especially difficult for runners such as Riddle, who would be in contention in a normal year, when the winning time is around 1:51-1:52.
˙But no matter what happens at the state meet, Riddle won't soon forget his performance at CCS.
˙Leland's Dan Sikiric, who has the section's fastest time of 1:52.6, went out hard. Riddle was content to follow and came˙through the first lap in 55.0, back in sixth place.
˙But the situation began to get sticky. Because of the traffic, Riddle knew if he got wedged in along the rail, he would be in deep trouble, so he took the other extreme--he went wide around the penultimate turn. Very wide.
"The shocker was going into lane three," Riddle said. "I thought, 'Oh God, no!'"
He expended a lot of extra energy by running a further distance by going wide, but his task was not done. To avoid another wide turn on the final curve, he had to get past the pack and around it on the backstretch, perhaps using up his reserve in the process.
"I didn't want to, but I had to," he said. "There's no way I would've won it otherwise."
It worked. Riddle not only rounded the pack, but found himself in position to take the lead, which he did, and held off Sikiric closing hard in the final meters.
"I didn't know what was going to happen (as he headed toward the finish line)," Riddle said. "I was really feeling it. I started to tie up, but I wasn't going to look back."
It's a good thing Pieslak didn't take a glance either on her relay anchor leg, or she might have spotted Los Gatos sophomore Stephanie Chavez running a blazing 56.9 split to close hard in the flnal stages.
M-A, though, crossed the finish line in 3:56.53, the fastest time in the section this year. But the competition at the state meet will be much more daunting. In addition to three East Bay schools that have broken 3:50-- Logan, Bishop O'Dowd and Skyline--there are several Southern Section teams in the same category, including Long Beach Poly, which is approaching 3:40.
But there was plenty to savor about their CCS win. And plenty of motivation in getting it.
"We felt so bad for Ashley," M-A coach Jim Hiserman said.
˙"We wanted it bad, really bad," Barrett said. Holt led off and passed in fourth place to Barrett, who ran a heroic 57.9 split, overtaking Los Gatos in the final five yards before passing to Cappa. Though Cappa dropped to second, she shattered her personal best split of 1:01.4 by running 59.7, leaving it up to Pieslak, who quickly passed Chavez and grabbed a lead so substantial that no one could catch her.
Perhaps Barrett's leg was the key. Hiserman told her, "You're as good as any of the runners out there." She proved him right.
The race certainly helped the hurt go away for Holt. She was in the position she wanted, trailing Tamika Bush of Independence on the final lap.
Silver Creek's Laneisha McPherson made a move to pass both of them with 150 to go, Holt knew this was her time to move, too. But when she tried to dig deep, there was nothing there.
˙"I tried to sprint, but my legs were dead," she said. "Until the last 150 everything was going the way I wanted it."
Two others, North Monterey County's Brianna Denley and Los Gatos' Lina Biber-Ferro, went by and all three set personal records. Holt's 2:17.57 was her second-best time ever.
˙ Hiserman said he noticed a flaw in her stride during the race.
˙"She was running in a more forward position than she should have," he said. "We would prefer she ran more upright. By leaning forward, she didn't get the drive she normally gets.
˙ ˙"I feel bad for her because she didn't have a chance to run her best race, which we thought would come at the state meet."
˙ ˙Holt, though, has another year left at M-A, but Pieslak doesn't. In four years, she won three CCS titles, two in the 400. She said she thought she would win her third 400 crown, but was passed by Del Mar's Tisha Ponder in the final 30 yards.
˙Pieslak led the entire race until then, and barely held off Sacred Heart Cathedral's Kamailia Williams for second in a blanket finish among the three. Pieslak's time was 57.66, her fastest of the season.
˙ ˙"My legs really tightened," she said. "I wanted to go out hard, maintain, and on the last part kick. I knew I had to move, but my legs were dead."
˙ ˙Pieslak battled illnesses and injuries all season and just recently has begun to round into shape.
˙"I'm sad I didn't win, but for what I went through this year, I'm happy I've gotten this far," she said. "A month ago, I was nowhere."
She'll likely need a sub-57 in the trials to crack the state finals lineup and a sub-54 to win the whole thing.
For Palo Alto, discus thrower Kelli DePuy set her second personal record in as many weeks, throwing 121-4 to finish fifth.
Two weeks ago, her chances of making the CCS finals appeared slim. But she improved on her best of 115-11 1/2 with a 117-4 to make the field. And improved even more Thursday.
˙ ˙Teammate Lindsey Anderson was sixth in the girls high jump at 5-0. She had a best of 5-6 this season. Had she matched that Thursday, Anderson would have earned a state meet berth.
˙In the boys 300 intermediate hurdles, Palo Alto's Ryan Farrell finished seventh, running a personal-record 39.41 in lane one. He was in the race until hitting the fourth hurdle.
"That threw me off," he said. From that point on, his rhythm was off and he chopped his steps a couple times.
Despite the race being his last official one as a high school senior, Farrell plans on continuing his career at the University of California next season while specializing in the decathlon--an event he hopes to qualify in at the Junior Olympic trials July 10 at San Jose City College. Farrell was fourth in last year's trials, but only the top three advanced.
˙ ˙Menlo-Atherton's Isaiah Morrisey set two personal bests last week to qualify fourth in both the 100 and 200 for the finals. Morrisey finished seventh in both events, running 11.05 in the 100 and 22.09 in the 200.
Gunn had two relay teams in the CCS final, but were not at their best.
The boys 1,600 relay team of Brian Carson, Riddle, Corey Jacobs and Williams placed sixth in 3:24.00.
"Our kids ran a tough race," Gunn coach Hal Daner said. "There was a lot of traffic out there--a lot of fast teams out there."
By the time Riddle received the baton for his second leg, Gunn already was in eighth. Riddle dug deep and relied on his 400 speed, bring the Titans into fourth as he passed to Jacobs. That was as good as it was going to get, however, as neither Jacobs nor Williams to catch as Los Gatos won in a CCS-leading 3:18.89, surprising Homestead was second in 3:21.37 and Del Mar grabbed the third state berth in 3:22.01. Gunn came into the meet with a season best of 3:22.75.
"We had hopes," Daner said. "We had dreams. We thought we had a shot at it. A lot of teams just stepped it up."
The Gunn girls 400 relay of junior Michelle Kwan, Lesley Chen, Jayna Lin, and Monica Coleman was disqualified for passing outside the exchange zone.
Going into the final exchange, Gunn was in fifth, but when Lin tried to pass, Coleman's extended hand was about an inch too far away. By the time the pass was made, the runners had gone too far down the track for a legal pass to be made.
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