On a sunny day at the North Coast Section (NCS) finals at Hayward High School, despite injuries and illness, Berkeley High School’s (BHS) cross country team defied expectations and made history, qualifying for state championships for the first time in 37 years.
At the crack of the starter pistol, BHS, dressed in red and gold, took off. Teammates waved enormous signs with heartfelt messages for the team’s seniors. If seniors did not qualify for the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) finals in Fresno, this would be their last cross country race.
The defining feature of the course is a hill, which must be faced twice in the three mile course. Gracie Koch, a sophomore, relishes the tactical element of hills. “I personally like hills… You can catch people on them, but also you can also strategize– to go easy on them, and let other people die out and catch them on the downhill,” she said. These sorts of mind games are a key part of cross country. Runners sometimes speed up around blind corners, hoping to gain enough of a lead to make other runners give up on catching them.
A good mental attitude is also important– Before each race, Koch wears lucky braids, shorts, and earrings, and plays her lucky song – Sweater, by Taylor Swift.
At NCS, head coach Brad Johnson instructed Berkeley’s runners to keep pace with opposing runners before passing them later. “Both the girls and boys teams…cashed their state tickets in the last mile of their races…We waited, we were patient. We let other people tire themselves, and then we went for it.” he said.
The scores were tallied, and BHS girls placed second– they were going to Fresno.
Emboldened by the results, the boys began their race. Junior Olaf Dietz was at the front of the pack, staying within striking distance of first place. As other runners began to tire, Berkeley made their move, with most runners passing at least a few opponents. Dietz placed second with a time of 14.59.9 minutes, achieving his season-long goal of sub-15 by a tenth of a second.
As the final runners crossed the finish line, the announcer’s voice boomed out: “Our top 3 are going to be Cal High in third place, Dougherty Valley in second place and Berkeley High in first.” BHS had edged out Dougherty Valley by just five points, 51-56, placing first. (Cross country teams compete for the lowest score.)
The BHS team was exuberant. After several group cheers and two surreal award ceremonies, the giddy team celebrated at a nearby In-N-Out.
A week later, the team raced in Fresno, at CIF finals. There, the boys placed 18th and the girls placed 20th in their division. Annie Jay, a freshman at Carleton College and a former BHS runner, came to cheer. “The team was such an important part of my high school experience… I wanted to come support them and give back to the team that gave so much to me,” she said.
According to senior Jalen Madjidi: “The pain in the race is only temporary, but the memory is going to be forever.”