A few miles down Bouquet Canyon Road – just around the corner from Central Park – lies Saugus High School, home of the Centurions. Saugus is like most high schools around the state of California. Thousands of students force themselves out of bed to attend class every morning. The colors of blue and white cover every fan at Friday night football games at near-by College of the Canyons. And all the success of the school’s sports programs can be witnessed in the gym, where large banners and plaques drape the concrete walls.
Only Saugus is different.
If you drive around the valley on a hot, sweaty summer day or a cold, icy winter morning, it’s likely you will see a group of high school girls running down the streets of Santa Clarita. For those who know their story, congratulate them on their accomplishments with a honk or shout. But for that small group of individuals that have no clue who the girls with the ‘S’ on their chests are, a few words of advice must be given out. Take a look at their faces and remember them. Pull out the newspaper archives from the last six years and read them.
Over the last six years, the girls with the ‘S’ on their chests have rewritten every record book out there, so much so that there is nothing else to accomplish. Their brilliant story is endless. Six consecutive California state cross country championships, team records on every major course around the golden state and some of the most prestigious awards left and right are just a few of the many accomplishments that compile their story, the Saugus girls distance dynasty.
Each year the Lady Centurions lose a large chunk of their team yet somehow, someway, they find a way to hoist the California-shaped trophy that reads, “State Champions,” every November. Six Novembers in a row to be exact. Ask them what their team goal is following every cross country season and you will get the same response from every girl on the team:
“Winning a seventh title means everything,” replied sophomore Samantha Ortega when asked what the team’s goal is this fall. “So many girls have come before us and done amazing. Last year, the top seven pulled off the impossible, despite everything going against them, and won. This year is the same way. This is huge. I’ve never wanted something so bad in my life nor have I worked this hard for something.”
This fall, the Saugus High girls cross country program – ranked number one in Rich Gonzalez’s first CIF Southern Section Division 2 rankings this month – will take aim at a record seventh consecutive state championship and like every year, they’ll make the attempt facing a lot of adversity. This year’s coaching staff will be missing former assistant coach Kathryn Nelson, while eight seniors that helped Saugus to a seventh straight state title and fourth junior varsity national championship in 2011, including all-state honorees Karis Frankian and Jenay Jauregui, will be missing from this year’s varsity lineup. In all, the Centurions only return four girls with varsity familiarity and three with state championship experience. To Saugus, the seniors that graduate aren’t necessarily known as losses.
“It’s not so much that we’re replacing them, we’re just moving up and trying to prove that we are able to carry on a legacy,” explains Darby LaPlant, another sophomore on this year’s varsity squad. “It’s hard seeing all the girls you trained with yesterday gone tomorrow, but we’re our own team now and we have to carry on. How we do this every year, who knows! Coach Paragas knows what he’s doing.”
Not only are the graduation losses difficult to deal with every year, the public’s expectations and the pressure that comes with being a six-time defending state championship team is huge. The program has only suffered one loss in California over the last six years, a nine-point loss to Simi Valley at last year’s CIF Southern Section Division 2 Championships. Most teams would fold with all that pressure on them, but not Saugus. They have been in this position many, many times before, the spotlight brightly lit on them all year long.
“The pressure is pretty overwhelming at times, but state seems so far away right now I can just push it to the back of my mind,” says LaPlant. “As it draws closer, I know we’ll be leaning on each other a lot though because that’s why we’re a team, to help each other through this and come out of it together.”
Just nine months after former co-captains Frankian and Jauregui led Saugus High to an unprecedented – and unpredictable – sixth straight state cross country championship, seniors Katie Huntington and Nina Sassano hope to follow in their two former teammate’s illustrious footsteps.
“My goal is to be a good leader,” says Katie Huntington, the 13th fastest returner from last year’s division two state finals. “I want to have another amazing story to tell and I want to know I made it happen because I pushed myself in every way I possibly could have. As long as I gave it my all and my teammates are happy, my goal is accomplished.”
For Sassano, the junior varsity national runner-up to teammate Abigail Frankian last October, winning another state cross country championship this November means a lot to the senior after she very narrowly missed making Saugus’ CIF roster last year.
“Winning a seventh state title means more than the world to me and my team,” Sassano explains. “Keeping the legacy that girls in the past have accomplished going would not only be a life-changing experience, but an honor to be a part of. I know I can speak for the team when I say this, we are working very hard and keeping this team very strong for the state championships. We’re not going down without a fight.”
Saugus also returns junior Frankian and senior Heidi Hoslet, the 10th and 14th fastest division two returners in California, as well as Alex Hill. Frankian and Hoslet had impressive track campaigns this spring, clocking 11:08.76 and 11:09.55 over 3,200 meters, while also delivering two inspiring 1,600-meter relay legs – 5:14 for Frankian and 5:15 for Hoslet – at the Arcadia Invitational in mid-April. For Frankian, the CIF 3,200-meter qualifier has a chance to join a short list of siblings to have earned all-state honors after older sister Karis did it three times in a row throughout her fabled prep career. Only Shannon and Amber Murakami, as well as Brianna and Jenay Jauregui, have accomplished the rare feat in Santa Clarita Valley cross country and track history. Meanwhile, Hill surprised many, including herself, when she smashed her personal best in the 800-meter run at the Foothill League Prelims in early-May, clocking an impressive 2:22.78 that ranks her 17th in the Santa Clarita Valley so far this year. She’s improved tremendously since.
“My 800-meter performance at league prelims really showed me that I can run better than I had been previously performing and it has motivated me to try to always train and perform to the best of my ability and to not let myself fall short of my potential, says Hill. “It’s made me excited for track and hopefully I can pick up from where i left off! But while I’m in cross country season I just want to work harder than I ever have before and I want to be able to help and motivate my teammates as much as I possibly can. I’m so excited to see how all of our hard work and training transfers over to races and I’m so ready to see myself and my team do amazing this season.”
The team will open the 2012 cross country season this afternoon at the Palos Verdes Friendly, a meet where Palos Verdes, Mira Costa, Corona and Penn join Saugus on the starting line. The Lady Centurions won the meet over Mira Costa last year, winning with 29 points. A week later, the squad will make another appearance at the Seaside Invitational. On Nov. 1st, they will go for a seventh straight Foothill League title. Two weeks after that, the group will look to take back the Southern Section title they barely missed out on last fall. Then seven days following that morning at Mt. San Antonio College – in 85 days to be exact – the program will aim for an incredible seventh consecutive state cross country championship at Woodward Park in Fresno.
Division two, which was the deepest state championship field in California history in 2011, is still stacked with talent, lead by top ten nationally-ranked La Costa Canyon. The good news is Simi Valley and superstar Sarah Baxter have moved back to division one, making Saugus’ path to number seven a little easier. Plus, head coach Rene Paragas is once again coaching the girl’s squad, making them a serious state championship contender. It’s true. Paragas always gives all the credit to his athletes after record-setting performances and historic triumphs, but the girls are quick in giving praise and thanks towards the guy hiding behind the blue-colored curtain.
“Paragas saw something in me that I never saw,” says Olivia Altieri, a senior who’s making her first appearance on the varsity girl’s team this year. “Less than a year ago, I was running with junior varsity and my personal best was 21 minutes. When he first moved me up to running with varsity, I honestly didn’t think I was capable of it, but I proved myself wrong. I’m so thankful and happy that he saw that capability in me.”
As Saugus’ season gets rolling today, expect the same results they’ve been posting over the last six years. Some say they have an incredible coach. Others say the group of ladies run with more heart, will and determination than anyone else in the state of California. Truth is, it’s a combination of both and then some. Saugus hates losing, so much that they’ve created a distance dynasty.
Their run for seven has begun.