RIO RANCHO — Wakei Hettinga was just another face in a crowd of cross-country runners — until he couldn’t be ignored any more.

The Los Alamos sophomore found himself mired in the mid-teens at around the halfway mark of the Class 4A boys race of the State Cross-Country Championships on Saturday at Rio Rancho High School. With a team battle with long-time rival Albuquerque Academy for the state title hanging in the balance, Hettinga knew that staying put was not going to cut it.

“I knew I had to gain some places in order for us to win,” Hettinga said.

In the space of a the final 11/2 miles, Hettinga swooped in from 13th place to take fifth individually. Those eight positions became crucial in helping the Hilltoppers rally to steal the team crown from the Chargers and repeat as state champions by a paper-thin 40-43 count.

Los Alamos won the day thanks to its pack strength — its scoring five runners all came in the first 14 spots. Hettinga, who was the No. 4 runner at the halfway mark, ended up as the Hilltoppers’ second runner across the line in 16 minutes, 25.30 seconds. He managed to beat Albuquerque Hope Christian’s Rendon Kuykendall to the line to take fifth.

“That’s incredible,” said Los Alamos junior Rafael Sanchez, who finished third overall. “Everybody stepped up, one through five. Wakei has been a big part of this team. He’s been moving up steadily this whole season. I can’t wait for next year.”

But credit doesn’t all belong to Hettinga. Sanchez chased down Santa Teresa’s Angel Anchondo to take third. Ryan Aldaz, the No. 5 runner, jumped up four spots and beat the Desert Warriors’ Tristen Gonzales to the line for 16th place by 0.10. Those last-minute exchanges of positions proved to be the difference.

There was nothing last-minute about the Class 3A race, but the battle for second place behind runaway winner Zuni proved to be more of a marathon.

The Thunderbirds were long gone with the championship blue trophy, thanks to their scoring five finishing in the first seven spots for 23 points, by the time the runner-up and third-place finishers were announced. A timing and scoring issue regarding a couple of Santa Fe Indian School runners led to a lengthy delay as race officials had to manually tabulate the team scores after finishing all of the other boys races.

Braves head coach Joe Calabaza said an issue arose when his No. 6 runner, Ronnie Coriz, was scored ahead of No. 1 runner Chris Humetewa, who finished third overall. That’s not all, though. Calabaza said another of his runners registered a higher finish than he did, although he did not know who it was.

“I don’t know what happened with the system, but it got all messed up from there,” Calabaza said.

Once the manual tabulation was completed, SFIS ended up with its second straight runner-up trophy to the Thunderbirds with a 92-point total. It wasn’t near as close as last year’s 40-49 margin, but Calabaza feels his squad can close the gap next year.

While Zuni will say farewell to five seniors, the Braves only lose Coriz and Calabaza is excited about his freshman class.

“Six out of seven [finishers] are juniors,” Calabaza said. “We still have a great bunch of freshmen who are on their heels. We’re still looking good for a couple of years.”

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The same can be said of the Pecos boys program. After a rough season in which its top two runners missed the season because of injuries sustained in a car crash, the Panthers relied on youth to fill the void.

While, they were no match for state champion Navajo Pine and runner-up Cloudcroft in the 1A/2A division, Pecos manufactured a third-place finish with 110 points.

Seniors Devin Gonzales (fourth) and Keith Flores (21st) led the way, but freshmen Aiden Holten (26th) and Elijah Lujan (29th) were a part of the scoring five and Lorenzo Ortega, the No. 6 runner, was 40th.

Patrick Ortiz, the Pecos head coach, said the season was a learning experience for the underclassmen, which will be invaluable as they mature.

“They never showed any doubt into anything they did,” Ortiz said. “They were confident in that. I think they’re just learning themselves and what runner they are going to be.”

Sort of like Hettinga, who learned how invaluable he was just by not settling for being a part of the pack.

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