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Santa Ynez Pirates excited to get back on track

Santa Ynez Pirates excited to get back on track

That special feeling returned for Santa Ynez athletic director Ashley Coelho last week.

For the first time in nearly a year, her athletes were competing.

Coelho was excited because two of her school's cross country runners, sophomore Sofia Monsalud and freshman Victoria Bernard, were set to run at Santa Maria High School last Friday.

Monsalud and Bernard did, in fact, compete then, ending that long hiatus for Santa Ynez athletics spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

The duo raced against the Santa Maria High cross country team on the Santa Maria High track. The race was set up by SMHS athletic director Brian Wallace, who got clearance to compete from his district and began looking for some competition. 

"I didn't sleep at all, in fact, and I just kept thinking about how exciting it's going to be watching our kids running around the track eight times and competing," Coelho said Friday. "I really think it's awesome that cross country is the 'spotlight' sport. It's a sport that nobody ever expected to be in the spotlight. But cross country will set the example and lead by example. We're thankful for Santa Maria for this opportunity to come out. It's epic, it's perfect and it's a beautiful day."

Coelho said her runners traveled with their parents. Parents were then asked to remain outside the SMHS stadium. Only competitors, media and school officials were inside the stadium during competition.

Runners wore masks at all times except during competition.

Wallace, a former Santa Ynez coach, got in touch with Coelho, who asked coach Ron Misner to gather as many runners as he could. That resulted in the two athletes traveling with parents to the event in Santa Maria and running eight laps apiece on the track. 

Bernard finished in 16 minutes, 3 seconds, just ahead of Monsalud (16:12).

"Some of the girls had already made plans because we weren't expecting to race," Misner said. "Some were working. But I got a few of my young up-and-coming runners.... We're just trying to see where we're at."

Misner said Channel League races are now set for Saturday, Feb. 27.

"I'm excited, a little nervous not having raced in a long time," Monsalud said before the race.

Two Santa Maria seniors were the top finishers in both the girls and boys races, as Amy Perez finished first in the girls race and Yair Torres was the fastest finisher in the boys race against Mission Prep.

Perez finished in 13 minutes, 49 seconds and Torres cruised to a win in 10:05. Typically, cross country races are held in parks or off-road courses, but amid the pandemic, any type of competition was eagerly agreed to by the competitors, coaches and school administrators.

The state of California has virtually locked down all competition since last March amid the coronavirus pandemic. The state has grouped certain sports into tiers based on various factors, like if a sport is close-contact vs. no-contact or indoor vs. outdoor. 

As a low-contact, outdoor sport, cross country is the first high school sport to return to the high school landscape. Coaches and administrators are now hoping to use cross country to show that other sports can be conducted safely at the high school and youth level. 

"That is the hope," said Dave Yamate, Santa Maria's girls coach and boys basketball coach. "I think we showed today that you can do it safely. With cross country, there's no contact, the kids are social distancing. No kids have come down with COVID since we've been going at it. Having some type of senior season would be really great. The kids will take a short season over no season at all."

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