Before the season started, St. Francis High’s E.J. Kelly was believed to be the top dog in the Pacific Coast Athletic League’s Santa Lucia division.
The Sharks’ senior runner has lived up to that billing so far.
Kelly, a three-time CIF state meet qualifier, dusted the field in the first PCAL-Santa Lucia Center Meet of the season on Wednesday at Natividad Creek Park in Salinas to formally establish himself as the runner to beat in the new league’s lower division.
But as he’s learned from the previous three years in the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League, where you start a season, doesn’t always indicate where you will finish it.
“I’ve been on both sides of it,” Kelly said. “It’s a long season, and where you’re at right now doesn’t necessarily mean anything when it comes time for league championships and [Central Coast Section finals].”
That mindset could ultimately be a good thing for coach Ramona Young’s Sharks, who have hopes of winning the program’s first-ever league title this fall.
As a team, St. Francis finished runner-up to Monte Vista Christian on Wednesday, but the Sharks have a “secret weapon” that could tilt the battle between Watsonville private schools in their favor.
Patrick McCarthy, a junior transfer from Bellarmine, will be eligible to run by the time Center Meet No. 2 rolls around on Oct. 4 at Christmas Hill Park in Gilroy.
McCarthy last year completed the 3-mile course at Toro Park in 17 minutes, and 23 seconds, and has developed a nice rapport with Kelly over the first few weeks.
“We’re looking forward to that dynamic duo,” Young said.
The Sharks also return junior Paul Kane and senior Mathieu Morin from last year’s squad, which placed sixth in the CCS Division V race. Freshmen Julian Vargas and Erik Kane will also boost St. Francis’ chances come league finals time.
Of course, McCarthy’s presence alone won’t guarantee the Sharks a league title.
Especially with M.V.C. fielding a speedy squad of its own.
Junior David Wang and sophomores Andrew Bachman and Justin Lomeli finished 2-3-4 on Wednesday. Their pack-running mentality shone through, as the trio finished within four seconds of each other.
Senior Rafael Gomez, junior Jordan Olhava and sophomore Marcos Puente will all be battling for the next two spots in the Mustangs’ scoring five.
Anzar High, Ceiba College Prep, Oakwood, Christopher High, Kirby and Trinity Christian will also compete in the Santa Lucia division.
Anzar’s duo of sophomore Alejandro Rosillo and junior Alex Avila will keep St. Francis and M.V.C. honest. The Hawks finished third on Wednesday.
Ceiba will not field a full team, but the Spartans do have seniors Jarrod Garcia and Irvyn Flores-Ballesteros running in varsity races.
Pajaro Valley High and Watsonville are both competing in the Cypress division against Gonzales High, Monterey High, Seaside High, Stevenson and York.
Christina Guerrero is the new head coach at Pajaro Valley after serving as an assistant last fall.
The Grizzlies will have to replace their top runner, Luis Leonor, but junior Jonathan Ramirez is working hard to do so.
The Wildcatz, coached by Rob Cornett, are young, but very deep. Sebastian Abonce and Daniel Mata lead a strong class of freshmen that have pushed returning starters Jesus Alvarez, Jesse Mandujano, Damian Rivas, Miguel Leon and Domingo Martinez.
Alvarez and Mandujano are seniors, while Rivas, Leon and Martinez are juniors. That quintet helped Watsonville finish second in the now-defunct Monterey Bay League Pacific division last season, and has Cornett believing the Wildcatz can compete for the league title this fall.
“They’ve developed through our system — they’ve drank [assistant coach] Tony Roman’s Kool-Aid,” Cornett said. “A championship isn’t out of the question.”
With dozens of runners at coach Gustavo Ibarra’s disposal, North Monterey County High will not be outnumbered in league’s toughest division.
The Condors will compete against Alisal High, Carmel High, Gilroy High, San Benito High, Pacific Grove High, Palma High and Soledad High.
Seniors Jiovanni Garcia, Anthony Macias and Oliver Ramirez return from last year’s squad, which placed ninth in the CCS D-III race, but freshman Ariel Alvarez will push all three for the team’s top spot.
The Aptos High Mariners look very different this fall following the graduation of five of their seven starters from last year’s SCCAL and CCS D-III champion team.
Returning seniors Josiah Sweet and Freddy Von Oepen will try to keep Aptos competitive in what should be an SCCAL filled with young powerhouses.
Sophomores Ben Laughlin, John G. Eikemeyer and Aidan Tomasini, junior Anton Jackson and senior Jacob Winans will also run Aptos, which recently opened its league season with a pair of victories over Harbor High and Mt. Madonna.
Junior Noah Kaplan leads Mt. Madonna.