They’re On The Fast Track

South Pasadena’s boys and girls cross-country teams — competing here at Lacy Park in San Marino — have placed first and second, respectively, in both their meets so far this season, and now rank No. 5 and No. 7 in the state in their division. Photos by Henk Friezer

The South Pasadena High School boys and girls varsity cross-country teams are ranked fifth and seventh in the state, respectively — and any opponent that’s paying attention is starting to see what this tandem of Tiger teams is bringing to the track.

The teams have dominated the Rio Hondo League, placing first and second, respectively, in both meets to date.

Head coach Michael Parkinson — who ran for the Tigers himself, as well as for UCLA, back in the day — believes the changes he has implemented are part of the reason the teams are ranked high … but he doesn’t take all the credit.

He says the teams’ runners organized their own summer training, deciding to get up as early as 5:45 a.m. to go on runs. But Parkinson, whose day job is as a physical therapist, does accept kudos for teaching small things that, so far, have produced big results.

“What I wanted to bring from a physical therapy standpoint — distance runners get hurt a lot from overuse, and we need to do something to try to minimize injuries, so the more you minimize injuries, the more successful your team can be because you can all train consistently. And then if you’re strong, you can train harder and not get hurt,” Parkinson said.

“My goal was to start getting everyone stronger. … I made it mandatory for the varsity teams to be in the weight room.”

Parkinson gives credit to four main strategies: weight room, slowly increasing the miles each runner does per week, improving their orthotics and aqua jogging.

“The other thing that I brought in new — a lot of people that get stress fractures and can’t run, we get them in the pool. … They might be in the pool for a month or six weeks and they almost don’t miss a beat,” Parkinson said.

“They get back on the track, injury is healed, and they haven’t lost too much conditioning because they did the aqua jogging. … [I told the team], ‘Let’s start the aqua jogging as a double-workout during the summer.’ ”

Parkinson wanted to challenge the teams and try to get them to run the same number of miles as the top teams in the state — 80 to 100 per week. He wanted his charges to do that as well, but he thought it would be efficient to do about half and half during the season — running on the track three to four days and in the pool at least three days a week.

Don Wielenga, one of Parkinson’s assistants and a science teacher on campus, said the coach took the team up a notch and has put a lot into the program. Wielenga said Parkinson is usually on campus until about 7 p.m.

The teams have some strong runners in senior Sam Clark and junior Andrew Villapudua for the boys team and sophomores Sydney Morrow and Mai Koyama for the girls team. The teams also have two transfers: junior Patrick Latting and sophomore Kerrigan Riley — who both ran their first meet two weeks ago in Fresno.

The first Rio Hondo League meet at Lacy Park in San Marino was on Sept. 26. The Tigers showcased their dominance, with the boys team finishing first and the girls second. Clark and Villapudua led the boys, finishing first and second, respectively. Morrow and Koyama led the girls team and finished in third and fifth, respectively.

The second Rio Hondo League meet, at Crescenta Valley Park last week, showed similar results. Clark dominated and won the race, with Villapudua finishing in third and junior Benicio Perez in fourth. Morrow led the girls and finished in third place, while Koyama was fifth and Riley sixth.

The team is competing well against other schools in the state. The Tigers traveled to Fresno to participate in the Clovis Invitational on Oct. 12, and the boys finished in fourth place among 33 teams, while the girls finished seventh among 28 teams. Clark led his team and finished in first place, while Morrow led hers and finished in fourth place. She also set a school record on the course, according to Parkinson.

While the boys finished in fourth place at Clovis, the three teams before them were all Division 3 teams — while South Pas was the first-placed Division 4 team. It’s also the same course for the CIF state race, so since both teams did well on it, the runners should be ready to conquer the state meet later this year.

The teams’ next meet is in Walnut at the Mt. Sac Invitational, where teams from across the state will be racing. The Tiger teams will be racing on Friday, Oct. 25 beginning at noon.

Parkinson said his team has been training all summer for this meet in particular, and believes his team is going to be more than ready.

After that meet, there will be one more invitational before the Rio Hondo League Finals on Nov. 7.