Heading into high school Jacob Yagers had a plan.
And for anyone that has met Yagers, that should come as little surprise. Lets just say he’s not the type of person to leave anything to chance.
So when he entered Highland High for his freshman year two years ago, the 14-year-old planned to run cross country with the hopes of getting in better shape for the upcoming baseball season.
Ironically, things didn’t go as planned.
“I ended up making varsity in cross country and then I was convinced by all my other teammates to do track (in the spring),” said Yagers, who won the Central Section track and field title in the boys 1,600 last year. “So I did track and I fell in love with it. I loved the feeling of getting better and better, and of achieving the goals that I set for myself. And I just became addicted to that feeling.”
Fast forward two years and that “addiction” has helped Yagers become one of the best junior cross country runners in the state. That’s particularly important heading into Thursday’s Central Section Cross Country Championships at Fresno’s Woodward Park.
The Scots' 16-year-old junior has finished no worse than second in any race this season, and he posted the fastest 5K time for a junior last month when he ran his personal best in winning the Roughrider Invitational in 15 minutes, 16.2 seconds, at that same Woodward Park course.
“He just keeps improving every year,” Highland cross country coach Rick Mayberry said. “As a freshman he had some problems with his knees. He had to do a lot of lifting to compensate. So at the end of the season he ran a 4:37, which was great for a freshman. So I thought he was above average. But he came back as a sophomore and he ran the 1,600 in 4:17, which for a sophomore is incredibly fast. He’s a hard worker, he’s steady. Super steady. He’s easy to coach, he works hard and he has a real passion for it.”
In addition to winning at the Roughrider, Yagers accomplished something else. He finished ahead of defending Division 3 champion Alex Cuevas, who helped guide Ridgeview to the state D-III title as a junior last year.
That’s something Yagers hopes to accomplish this year, although to reach those lofty goals, he knows he will have to defeat Cuevas and the Wolf Pack in Division 2 this season. Ridgeview was moved up as part of the Central Section’s competitive equity rule. Cuevas ran a personal-best 15:01.4 last season and finished in 15:13.2 last month, nearly three seconds faster than Yagers.
“Individually, I’d like to win,” said Yagers, who finished eighth in last year’s D-3 race in 16:20.20. “I want to go out and run a smart race and I want to be able to have a strong finish just so I know where I’m at (heading into the CIF State Championships on Nov. 30) because that’s when I really want to be at my absolute best.
“Right now I feel like I’m in pretty good shape. I feel like the workouts we’ve been doing are all there and right where I need to be (for this part of the season). I think I’ll be in good shape come Thursday.”
Getting in shape has gone to a new level for Yagers this season. In an effort to lower his times, he has worked on training his body to run faster for longer stretches.
“I feel like the past couple of years I’ve been running more conservative and having a harder finish,” Yagers said. “The main thing I’ve been working on this year is being able to maintain a faster speed throughout the race, and also being able to have that finish. So not so much of saving it all for the end. Putting it all out there, but still having enough for the end to finish hard.
“We’ve been doing some good endurance workouts for myself and the rest of the team. We want to feel comfortable when we’re running fast, so running at a fast pace for a longer distance. We have kind of become accustomed to that feeling and what it feels like, so in races it just feels like another workout. We just need to be able to finish hard at the end.”
Yagers' dedication and attention to detail is what has really impressed Mayberry.
“He doesn’t panic and he’s not a super emotional runner like other runners I’ve had before,” said Mayberry, who believes Yager can break the 15-minute barrier in the 5K next season. “He’s very methodical, he doesn’t lose his cool, he knows what he wants to do and he doesn’t vary from his gameplan. He’s just a really good racer.”
If all goes as planned, Mayberry expects Thursday’s D-2 race will come down to Yagers and Cuevas, with a section title hopes hanging in the balance.
“It’s going to be him and Cuevas for sure,” Mayberry said. “I think for me, that’s the battle. We’ll just have to see who shows up.”
Sounds like a solid plan.
Highland girls cross country team
The Scots girls team is one of the favorites to win the Division 3 championship in Thursday’s Central Section Championships.
Highland is led by junior Haley Ulloa and freshman Lianna Guerra. Ulloa set a personal record in the 5K at the Asics Clovis Invitational last month (18:57.9), while Guerra ran her fastest (19:07.5) against North three weeks ago.
“They just have to run their race,” Mayberry said. “We’ve got Haley, a solid, solid leader of the team. Lianna is a freshman who's come in and she’s right behind her every race. So we have a solid five. We’ve had all five of those girls run under 20.”