Contenders, Pretenders and Defenders

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La Cueva's Natasha Bernal and Mason Swanson led their Bear teammates to a Championship repeat. Photo by Holly Patterson.

The Girls 6A Championship served up a premier battle of Rio Rancho, New Mexico’s consensus #1 team, versus the defending champions of La Cueva. Rio Rancho enjoyed a string a big meet victories at Lobo, Cleveland, Metro, and Jamboree, but the La Cueva Bears improved ever so slightly at the #4 position in late October, and meant to make their final stand at the State Championships. Albuquerque’s best metro schools also vied for a podium finish, with strong teams assembled form Volcano Vista, Eldorado, and Cibola entering the fray. Also unbeaten, La Cueva’s Natasha Bernal entered the meet with a perfect resume in her lone XC Season, and meant to make one final triumph to lead her team to a championship sweep.

The potpourri of uniforms as the 6A girls approached the first mile already show it was a two team race. Photo by Holly Patterson.

As the gun sounded, Bernal was quickly joined by teammate Mason Swanson, intent to make her mark on the assembled field. Early on, Rio Rancho’s Andi Almodovar and Molly Klein raced up front, with La Cueva’s Mackenzie Everett reminding them of the firepower La Cueva intended on maximizing. After the first major hill and entering the grass fields, Cleveland’s Amanda Mayoral and Onate’s Meghan Aguilera moved close to contend, but La Cueva’s was playing for keeps. Volcano Vista’s Hawks grouped together and made a strong push for podium finishes, led by the sterling front running effort from Rebecca Castillo. Rio Rancho made one final push before the 2 mile mark, as Coach Sal Gonzales cheered them on and demanded their very best.

La Cueva's Bernal easing away from the field. Photo by Holly Patterson.

As the runners flew around the grass fields, Bernal finally separated from the field and provided another reminder that the Bears defend best when stakes are highest. Rio Rancho’s string of victories was snapped with the large gap from their fourth to fifth runner, as La Cueva beat Rio Rancho at every position except the fourth spot. On this day, La Cueva’s Abigail Napier and Noelle Hendrickson applied the pressure from the fifth & sixth positions, and they finished ahead of Rio Rancho’s fifth scoring runner. Their final push locked up the team title, and proved that depth decides team supremacy.

Natasha Bernal roughly 200m from capping off her undefeated fall. Photo by Holly Patterson.

Up front, Natasha Bernal capped an undefeated season in emphatic fashion, breaking the blue ribbon with a time of 18:50. Bears teammates joined her top ten finish with spirited performances from Mason Swanson in 3rd, joined by Mackenzie Everett in 6th place. Bernal’s individual championship capped an undefeated season, joining the ranks of perfect seasons that only the best can muster. It was wonderful reminder that champions are only built with meticulous hard work, alongside dedicated teammates and supportive coaches. The La Cueva Bears ran away with the team title, outpacing runner-up Rio Rancho by 19 points, and defended their championship with decisive precision.

The La Cueva trio of (left to right) Mackenzie Everett, Natasha Bernal, and Mason Swanson embrace after the race. Photo by Sylvia Chavez.

Victory is an ode to preparation, because fast and flashy stands upon the shoulders of slow and steady. The early summer mornings, spent running & building fitness, repetition repeating the sound planning and unavoidable pathway trailblazed by singular talents years before. If you're ever lucky to see a special race, a dominating season, or a championship triumph, please know that many deliberate building blocks were placed days, months, and seasons ago. It's a procession of dreams dared and running soles bared. And maybe sometimes, it all clicks together to make plans whole.

The La Cueva Girls Team celebrating with their fans post race. Photo by Sylvia Chavez.

If you've cheered this season, thank you for acknowledging teams and individuals that have steadied their aim and exceeded wild expectations, and hopefully encouraged the next group to brave their limits and stretch towards bigger and faster goals. Just the way it should be. Cheers to the Bears, battle tested, champion approved.

The La Cueva Bears, the 2014 Girls 6A Cross Country State Champions. Photo by Sylvia Chavez.