The Los Gatos High girls team and Aydon Stefanopoulos from the boys team qualified for the CIF State Championships after stirring performances in the CCS Championships on Nov. 11.
The girls team placed third in the Division II race with a score of 95, a comfortable 60 positions ahead of Palo Alto for the final berth to State. Shea Elmore led the way for the Wildcats once again, finishing fifth in a season-best 18:33.2 at the venerable 2.95-mile Crystal Springs Course in Belmont.
Taylor Chesarek was 19th in 19:17.9, Clare Liu finished 22nd in 19:24.3, Sarina Salzer-Swartz placed 24th in 19:36 and Tatum Pyle was 25th in 19:38.9. All five of the team’s scoring runners placed in the top 25, an incredible achievement that left coach Paul Lawryk amazed afterward.
“I’ve never had that depth for a No. 5,” Lawryk said minutes after the race was over. This is Lawryk’s final season after a distinguished seven-year coaching run at the school. “I don’t know what her time was, but I’ve never had anyone be that fast for a No. 5. And Shea, wow, that’s fifth. She can make the [powerhouse] St. Francis and Los Altos varsity teams. .. I’m pleased the girls executed the way they wanted.”
The Wildcats had high expectations last year but fell short in their bid for a State berth. This time, they got it done in emphatic fashion. Elmore and Chesarek have been on point and consistently fast all season, but it takes quality depth for a team to go through to State, especially in Division II, the toughest of the five in the CCS.
To that end, Liu, Salzer-Swartz and Pyle came up huge. Before this year, Liu’s best Crystal time was the 21:44.3 she ran as a sophomore two years ago. She didn’t come close to matching that time as a junior, but 2023 has been her breakthrough season.
Prior to the CCS Championships, Liu posted times of 20:10.3 and 19:39 at Crystal Springs, meaning she’s nailed a personal-record (PR) three times at that course this season. Her improvement has been nothing short of spectacular.
“I think Clare is our standout runner for the season,” said Los Gatos assistant coach Ibet Allan. “She’s improved every single race and she carries an extremely heavy academic load. She has run amazing.”
Salzer-Swartz also had a terrific race, running a 21-second season-best at Crystal Springs. Allan said it’s been a joy seeing the girls develop and bond on and off the course this season.
“I think one of the most wonderful things about our team is the girls have been in a very good head space,” she said. “They have stayed healthy throughout the whole season, but they’ve also really worked together as a team, they’ve got a really good connectivity about them and they have a healthy team dynamic. So they all really cheer for each other, and help each other in practice and stand together and I think that makes for a good team.”
Meanwhile, moments after the Division II boys race, Wildcats junior Aydon Stefanopoulos lamented he wasn’t going to get another crack at Grant Morgenfeld, Palo Alto High’s senior distance ace. The two compete in the same league and have had memorable races over the last couple of years as they rank among the section’s best.
Morgenfeld took first in 15 minutes, 5.2 seconds, and Stefanopoulos settled for second in 15:16.8, nailing a nine second PR in the process. Rounding out the Los Gatos scoring, Jensen Bidmead finished 11th in 15:54.2, Ben Klarich took 24th in 16:25.2, Sahil Agarwal placed 44th in 17:01.9 and Adam Wang came in 52nd in 17:11.7.
The Wildcats were edged by Branham for the third and final State berth by a mere eight positions, 113-121. Branham proved faster in the fourth and fifth positions which ultimately made the difference. That’s not to say Los Gatos had a mediocre race—far from it.
Three of its five runners hit career-bests, including Bidmead with a nine-second PR and Agarwal with a huge 27-second PR. Stefanopoulos is seemingly primed for a strong performance at the State Championships Nov. 25 at Woodward Park in Fresno.
He finished fifth in last year’s State Meet while Morgenfeld was 18th. At Crystal Springs, Stefanopoulos, who is as refreshing and candid as any athlete you’ll ever meet, broke the race down with clarity and detail.
“I basically went out and was confident,” he said. “I thought I could beat Grant. He’s just really a monster on this course, man. He can work those hills like nobody I know. He broke me on Heartbreak Hill or Cardiac Hill over there, and I just wasn’t able to get ahead of him past that [point]. … I think what I should’ve done was gotten ahead of him before that so he couldn’t exactly storm ahead past the hill [just beyond the 2-mile mark]. He broke me there and I wasn’t able to catch up on the hill. It’s 23 meters [ascent], it’s damn steep. It’s kind of like Montgomery Hill [in San Jose] but shorter.”
Stefanopoulos did his best to push Morgenfeld, putting in a few surges from the one mile to two-mile mark.
“I wasn’t able to break him there, his aerobic capacity is just so strong I wasn’t able to pass him,” Stefanopoulos said. “But hey, I made it to State and that’s what I wanted.”
A day before the event, Stefanopoulos and his teammates received a treat when Grant Fisher worked out at the LGHS track and spent time with the team. Fisher is the North American record-holder at 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 meters, and finished fifth in the 10K at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
Stefanopoulos got to do a warmup and cooldown lap with one of America’s premier distance runners, and it was nothing short of a thrill.
“Watched his whole workout, watched him do the lactate meter which is very interesting,” Stefanopoulos said. “Very, very cool moment, but I wasn’t exactly thinking about it during the race. Of course me and the guys were all so excited about [meeting him].”