Posted By Press Democrat Staff Writer Michael Coit:
Note: The SRJC women qualified for the state junior college finals with a sixth place finish at the Northern California championships. On the men’s side, Elijah Stephenson and Tyler Harwood finished high enough at Nor Cal to reach the state meet in Fresno Nov. 19.
 
   A tight band of runners who didn’t star or even compete in high school cross country have positioned Santa Rosa Junior College for a shot at the state meet.
    First the Bear Cubs must run well today at the Northern California championships held on the challenging Crystal Springs course in Belmont, just south of San Francisco.
    “It’s great we actually made it this far,” said Margie Garza, who leads the women’s team two years out of Maria Carrillo High. “If everybody runs like they normally do, we’ll be all right. We’re pretty confident we’re going to state.”
    Santa Rosa’s women are ranked fifth in the region after placing third at the Big 8 Conference finals. Garza, Atalie Halpin, from Rincon Valley Christian, and Carly Miller, out of Santa Rosa High, won all conference honors.
    While the men are farther back in the regional rankings at 13th, the Bear Cubs have a pair of all-conference runners in Elijah Stephenson from Maria Carrillo, and Tyler Harwood out of Casa Grande.
    “None of us would be able to do what we do if we didn’t have our teammates to push us,” Stephenson said. “We’re tight.”
    Finding success at the junior college comes from focused training led by an enthusiastic first-year coach who has tapped each runner’s individual fire. “They work together and not against each other. Chemistry-wise it’s one of the best teams I’ve ever had,” said Jerry Noble, who began at Santa Rosa with the track team in the spring.
    The team’s strength comes from a commitment to improve. While a few were All-Empire or all-league runners, none was tops on their high school team. A handful of Bear Cubs runners never ran cross country in high school.
    Stephenson, for example, reached sectionals as a tall, lanky wrestler. But he remained a junior varsity cross-country runner through his senior year at Maria Carrillo.
    “Running kept me in wrestling shape. It was fun. I did it mostly for the social aspect,” Stephenson said.
    A commitment to run more the summer before junior college last season led to a surprisingly fast time in his first race. Stephenson would cut a minute off his mile pace and has been reaching personal bests ever since.
    “I was amazed that I did so well. That’s when it clicked,” he said. “I go to practice to win.”
    Also back for Santa Rosa and better than a year ago is Harwood. At Casa Grande he was one of the Empire’s top half-milers in track, but ran back in the pack for the Gauchos in cross country.
    At the front of the women is Garza. A strong middle-distance runner on the track at Maria Carrillo, she was All-League in cross country on a pair of Pumas section winning squads.
    “I want to do better because I know we’re going to make some noise at our meets,” she said.
    Garza has regained a competitive edge after a freshman season when the women’s team couldn’t fill out the roster and Garza wasn’t in top shape.
    “I’m remembering what it was like in high school and it feels really good,” Garza said.
    The number-two Santa Rosa woman much of the season has been Miller. An All-League runner at Santa Rosa High who found a faster gear in junior college, Miller is a team leader with an outgoing personality.
    Often right alongside in races is Halpin. She was an All-Empire soccer player at Rincon Valley Christian who has a fast motor for cross country.
    Leading the team is Noble, an All-American decathlete at Chico State who was an assistant coach for Moorpark and DeAnza junior colleges before taking over the Santa Rosa track and cross-country programs.
    Recruiting at high schools and on campus to fill out thin rosters, Noble soon found he had a committed bunch when workouts began. Noble took the team on Sonoma County trails over summer, which was new for returning runners. Double-day runs followed, all to increase weekly mileage.
    The team continued to improve over the fall season with a focus on targeting times through individual training, whether runners needed more speed work or distance running.
    “There’s more of a focus,” Noble said. “There’s not as many distractions as in high school. You’re here to compete, not just to get in shape.”
    Bolstering the team’s success on the trails has been coming together away from competition. Pasta feeds, an overnighter for a meet in Fresno, and other activities have built friendships.
    “It builds pride in who we are. We all want each other to succeed,” Stephenson said.