RIO RANCHO — All Josette Gurule thought after possibly her worst cross-country race of the season — at the State Cross Country Championships, no less — was that she had done it again.
She let her team down.
The usually reliable junior runner for Academy for Technology and the Classics struggled for the second straight year in the Class 1A/2A girls race, crossing the finish line in 17th place Saturday at Rio Rancho High School. She immediately thought of the 2018 meet, when she finished 11th but the Phoenix took second in the team standings to District 2-2A rival Pecos by a 36-39 count in the lowest score wins format.
But this wasn’t the same team as last year, and the rest of the Phoenix had Gurule’s back. What Gurule didn’t know was that four of her teammates finished in the top five and Kate Ferguson’s 13th-place finish capped a championship scoring ladder and a 24-35 win over those same Lady Panthers to win the state title.
It is the second championship in five seasons for the program, but the first for the current ATC runners. Still, Gurule had a “pinch me” moment when she was informed that she was still a state champion moments after completing her run.
“Wait, what?” Gurule said in a befuddled haze before Phoenix head coach Tim Host confirmed what she heard.
“I am so proud of them,” Gurule said of her teammates. “They are so fantastic, and I am so happy that I have a team like that. This is so awesome.”
ATC overwhelmed the Lady Panthers with its depth, as Kamryn Hoehne stepped into Gurule’s void and finished fourth as the No. 3 runner behind sisters Maggie Rittmeyer (first) and Lily Rittmeyer (third). Noelani Van Loon made her annual state meet surprise, finishing fifth to go with last year’s third and give the Phoenix an almost insurmountable advantage.
“The girls are just so unbelievably cohesive,” Host said. “They are such a unit with such depth that they haven’t had the same order of finish all year. Somebody always steps up with this crew. Even if Josette didn’t have her best day, she still stepped up.”
Of course, Maggie Rittmeyer has always been the rock of the group. She settled her duel with last year’s individual champion, Pecos’ Vanessa Dominguez, once they reached the turfed practice fields. Rittmeyer used what is widely considered the easiest part of the course to push herself the hardest. It proved to be fruitful as her time of 19 minutes, 42.71 seconds was more than a minute faster than Dominguez.
“I always remember that middle mile — that flattest part, maybe the easiest part of the race — is the most important part of the race,” Maggie Rittmeyer said. ” At districts [last week], on the back of our course, I actually slapped myself in the face to keep myself going because every second is so important. So I knew that grass [at Rio Rancho] was somewhere that a lot of people slow down and I just kept going.”
While Pecos finished second, it actually ended up with a better score than last year. Lady Panthers head coach Patrick Ortiz said having a formidable foe in ATC to push the team throughout the year was an invaluable experience.
“To have another team or teams that pull the best out of both, that is something,” Ortiz said. “When you wake up in the morning, you got to show what you’ve got. That’s why we run.”
Completing a Northern sweep was Peñasco, which took third with a 116-point total, highlighted by a 15 place-finish by senior Carly Gonzales and eighth grader Charnelle Gonzales’ 16th.
Three years is a long time between state championships for Los Alamos, so the Lady Hilltoppers wasted little time in asserting their dominance over three-time defending state champion Albuquerque Academy in the Class 4A race. When the runners came down from the hill behind the football stadium, Los Alamos had its scoring five in the top 11 before Academy’s No. 2 runner appeared.
Once again, the Lady Hilltoppers were at their best at the right time. Kathy Hipwood, Los Alamos’ co-head coach, said a two-week break in mid-October helped get the team physically and mentally prepared for the final three-week push.
“Things really did click late in the season,” Hipwood said. ” A lot of times, at the end of the year, we’re nursing injuries and stuff. It just really came together. They trained really well.”
The Lady Hilltoppers went on to beat the Lady Chargers, 30-58, and they also took the top two individual spots. It just seemed like Sophie Chadwick would win it, with Norissa Valdez following her — until the final 100 meters. Valdez sensed the freshman tiring down the stretch and chased her down at the line to win the individual title by three-tenths of a second with a time of 18:40.00.
Valdez felt a little remorse for beating her teammate, but her competitive side compelled her.
“I didn’t really care who wins because we both deserve it, but I really wanted to win,” Valdez said. “[Chadwick] might have went out a little too hard, but she stayed strong.”
In the 3A race, Las Vegas Robertson junior Maya Luu was the top Northern finisher with a sixth-place finish, while Santa Fe Indian School’s Kendra Emery was 10th. Maya Holder of Santa Fe High finished 32nd in the 5A race.