FRESNO -- The Central Section keeps telling the cross country teams at McFarland and Shafter that they've got to go bigger and better, so the Cougars and Generals are responding the only way they know how.
They're going bigger and better.
Shafter's girls and McFarland's boys won Division II section titles Thursday at Woodward Park, beating dozens of schools with two or three times as many students.
"Honestly, it feels like we won a state championship," McFarland boys coach Joel Lopez said. "It's an awesome day."
Danny Garcia led the Cougars, who didn't start a single senior, with a fourth-place finish in 16:20 on the 5-kilometer course. Sophomores Thomas Valles, Luis Orozco and Abran Ayon came in 11-12-14 to all but seal a championship in a wide-open race. McFarland scored 70 points to edge Porterville-Monache's 96 and Shafter's 99.
McFarland, in a small farming community and with an enrollment hovering around 700, is a longtime cross country power. The Cougars won nine state championships in Division IV before the Central Section started its competitive equity program, which forces successful schools up and unsuccessful ones down, no matter their size.
"At first I was like, 'I don't want to make excuses,' but as time went on, I had to tell myself, 'OK, Joel, you're making excuses,'" Lopez said. "It was (DyeStat Cal editor) Rich Gonzalez who told me, 'Three miles is three miles.'"
Now what Lopez considers the real downer to competing in Division II: McFarland has to do it at the state meet on Nov. 24, too.
"In Division II? The best team in McFarland history could place in the top 10, maybe," Lopez said.
The same bittersweet trip to state awaits Shafter's girls, who scored 72 points to Frontier's 85 and 86 from Madera South. The Generals (enrollment of about 1,300) have won three straight section titles, the first two in Division III.
"It's enormous," Generals coach Darin Sundgren said. "The competition is really tough. We're competing against schools with twice as many students. That's just a bigger pool you're drawing from, and if you find one more great runner, that makes a huge difference."
Shafter was led by county champion Nicolette Aldape, who ran a Woodward personal-best 19:14 and took third.
"Nicolette was right where we expected her to be, and that's an awesome time," Sundgren said.
McFarland's girls, bumped up to Division III, won their third straight title behind a third-place finish from Jennifer Ramirez (19:36).
“It makes me really happy that we’re representing McFarland,” Ramirez said. “It's always been the guys team at our school, but now we're getting up there.”
Kern County's only individual champion Thursday came in that D-III girls race: It was Ridgeview senior Lashya Morgan, who won in 19:03 a year after taking a close second.
“I was like, ‘I don't want that to happen again,’ so I pushed it all year long,” said Morgan, who led nearly wire to wire. “I got to a lead, and when I’m in a lead I feel like I can control it better.”
Stockdale’s boys, the defending Division I champion, had two medalists for the second consecutive year.
That effort was led by junior Blake Haney, who ran 15:47 to finish second behind Madera South’s Jose Herrera (15:37). It was an impressive performance for Haney, who won the section title last year but is competing in just his third 2012 meet after battling an IT band injury below his right knee.
“It was pretty surprising; I feel like I’m getting better and better,” said Haney, who still estimates he’s only at 75 percent. “I just tried to relax and hang in there. It’s just relieving to be back and racing.”
Stockdale senior Connor Fisher took fifth in 15:53 after battling a cramp for the second half of the race.
“I was a little disappointed, but all in all, it’s a good day,” Fisher said. “I’ve gotten better every year, and that's all that counts.”
Stockdale finished fourth as a team, behind state-ranked powers Madera South and Clovis-Buchanan, plus Clovis North. Only three reach the state meet, though both Haney and Fisher qualified as individuals.
“We knew it would be a tight race going in, with five teams competing for three spots,” Mustangs coach Josh Lewis said. “It would have been nice to go. But it’s certainly great to see Blake and Connor come on strong.”
Moving on to the Division I state meet on the girls side is Stockdale senior Tori Blackmon, who finished 10th in 19:11, a personal best at Woodward.
“I missed out on state by one spot last year,” Blackmon said. “So I said, I have to go this year. I have nothing left to do but go as far as I can.”
Blackmon said she has no goals at state other than to run until “I’m on the ground, passed out.”
That's the idea for everyone who advanced, no matter what size school they have to run against.
“Is it fair? Doesn't really seem that way, and hopefully one day they’ll get it right,” said McFarland girls coach Amador Ayon. “But we've got to run with whoever they put in front of us. All you can do is run.”