On the day of Blake Haney's final cross country race in Kern County, running was just about the last thing on his mind.
But Haney ran, and he won, as usual, taking the Southwest Yosemite League championship in 14:58 on Thursday on a three-mile course at Hart Park.
Afterward, Haney took off his Stockdale singlet to reveal what was really on his mind -- and painted on his undershirt: "We Love Coach Johnson."
The Mustangs won their fourth straight league title but lost a member of their family Thursday when beloved assistant coach Bill Johnson died from a rare form of skin cancer in the morning.
"He means about as much as anyone to me," Haney said. "He motivated me, kept the pressure off of me. Just a great coach.
"Before, I didn't even know if I'd be able to race. I was breaking down pretty bad. But we've got a great group of guys and they calmed me down. I was just running for coach."
Haney, ranked as the nation's top high school distance runner by multiple running websites, will take an official recruiting visit to the University of Oregon this weekend. He said he's narrowed his college choice to Oregon or Stanford.
The Mustangs backed up Haney's performance with a third place from Keane Kelley (15:53) and a ninth from Tyus Thompson (16:41), another runner who was close to Johnson. Brandon Kan of Frontier was second in 15:40.
Now Haney and company will prepare for the Central Section championships next Thursday and the CIF State Championships on Nov. 30. Both are run at Woodward Park in Fresno.
"The big meets start Thursday," Haney said. "That's where my focus is."
Golden Valley's Mariah Ayala backed up her Kern County championship from Saturday with the best girls time of the day; she ran 18:19 to win the South Yosemite League title.
"I've been working this year on my consistency," Ayala said. "In other years, sometimes I wouldn't go to practice or I wouldn't run my hardest. This year, I'm trying as much as possible. It's paid off so far."
It was Ridgeview's girls, led by second-place Fernanda Aguilar (18:52), who edged Golden Valley 32-40 to force the teams to share the league title; Golden Valley earned its share by sweeping regular-season dual meets.
West High snapped the five-year reign of Ridgeview's boys team in the SYL. The Vikings edged the Wolf Pack 32-37 behind the individual championship of senior Gustavo DelCastillo, who ran 16:01.
"I'm more happy for the school and the team," DelCastillo said. "It shows we are a competitive team, and it makes me proud that West is up there. These guys are like my brothers on this team."
DelCastillo's victory was typical of the day's individual races: He pulled away from the pack in the first mile and then cruised, battling only the clock and his own fatigue rather than other runners.
"It's kind of tough when there's nobody in front of you," said DelCastillo, who ran 15:28 on the same course Saturday. "I just didn't feel any motivation."
It was a similar story for SEYL girls champion Savannah Berry of Highland, whose 18:29 was 28 seconds ahead of second-place Angel Valdez of East.
"You're just trying to hold on," Berry said. "It's hard when you're by yourself. You want to slow down or look behind you, but you have to keep telling yourself you can't."
North High won the girls SEYL team championship easily, with four runners placing in the top 12. The Stars cemented their title after sweeping the league's regular-season dual meets.
"There are so many good runners in our league individually that it was a dogfight all the way through," Stars coach Adam Dawson said. "Different girls stepped up at different times, and we were able to do it without a true No. 1-type runner. We have a real tight group, and we don't get bothered when we see a few people in front of us."
Bakersfield High sophomore Maggie Baker had gotten used to seeing a few runners in front of her at SWYL meets, but that all changed in the championship. She ran 18:47 to out-pace Liberty's Morganne Hill (19:01) and Stockdale's Vanessa Cortes (19:08). It gave Baker her first league title after older sister Sarah won four in her high school career.
"The league is so competitive that it was nice to see it all come together for me today," Maggie Baker said. "It was hard following my sister; it's tough to be compared to her. But she calls me before races and supports me. The other girls are super supportive, too. I've been lucky to have such support."
Centennial ended Stockdale's run of SWYL girls titles, scoring 46 points Thursday to Frontier's 51, Stockdale's 62 and Liberty's 66. The Titans snuck ahead of Stockdale into second place.
Abby White led the Golden Hawks with a 19:34 good for seventh place. Normal No. 1 runner Molly Pruett battled through illness and minor injury to finish eighth in 19:48.
"It feels wonderful; I'm so happy for the girls and how hard they've worked," Centennial coach Vondre Armour said. "Every race has been decided by just 4-6 points, and we knew today we had a target on our back. We've had some issues with sickness and injury, but we've had some girls switch out and hold their own."
Armour hopes Centennial can compete in the rough-and-tumble Division I race at next week's section meet.
Foothill's boys, on the other hand, think they have a chance to win the Division III meet. Chris Garcia ran 16:02 to win the individual SEYL title as the Trojans rolled to team victory, 25-36 over North.
Garcia collapsed shortly after the finish line, was helped to his feet and then struggled over to the water cooler with a smile.
"Oh, that last mile, if it wasn't for God, I don't think I would have finished," Garcia said. "I just kept saying, 'One more mile to go. One more, one more, one more.'"
It was the Trojans' first outright league title since 2006. They figure to compete with West and Ridgeview to challenge favored Fresno-Roosevelt in the D-III race next week.
"This has been going on, building, since a lot of these guys were sophomores," Foothill coach Paul Contreras said. "We dropped some of them down to the frosh-soph and JV level so they could run together. I'm really proud of these guys. All the credit goes to them."