SALINAS — A state champion, a dozen All-Americans, even a U.S. indoor runner-up in the mile and an Olympic trials qualifier. All had one thing in common when running cross country for Hartnell College.
None were highly recruited out of their respective high schools, if at all. It wasn’t a chip on their shoulder that served as motivation. Rather a desire to improve and reach their potential.
Hartnell’s all-decade cross country teams are a list for the ages — seven men and seven women that elevated the program, taking it into uncharted waters at the highest level while turning visions into reality.
“We want to put kids in an environment that allows them to grow,” Hartnell coach Chris Zepeda said. “A lot of kids have told me they wish the Hartnell experience could be four years.”
It’s understandable when you see runners dropping two and three minutes off their high school marks in just 18 months, earning athletic scholarships that would not have been attainable otherwise.
Limiting his team to seven runners was an inevitable task for Zepeda. What began as scribbling a few names on paper ended up being a page full of nominees with roughly 100 all-conference runners.
“I started looking up individual races,” Zepeda said. “I looked at strength of schedule, compared times of courses. I spent three days researching. It was really hard to just pick seven.”
Some were simpler than others, such as Diego Leon becoming the second Panther distance ace to capture a state cross country title, setting a pace five years ago for others to emulate.
“He did more than win a state title,” Zepeda said. “He led by example. He inspired others to work harder. He was the pinnacle of the entire decade. It’s a long path in just 18 months.”
A little known runner from Anzar, Leon became a sub-four-minute miler, earning a ride to Montana State, but not before winning three state track and field titles, setting a Hartnell record in the 5,000-meter run in 2014.
Also selected to this list was Salinas High grad Cristian Soratos, who in two years at Hartnell became an All-American in two sports, setting a school record in track in the 1,500 in 2011.
“Talk about a kid living the dream,” Zepeda insisted. “He kind of set the tone for us. He surprised a lot of people. Cristian just kept dropping time.”
Soratos ended up at Montana State, where he finished second at the NCAA Division I indoor mile finals in 2015. He turned pro, finishing second at the U.S. Indoor mile championships in 2016.
Five years after running his last high school race at San Benito High, Ricky Esqueda returned to the sport at Hartnell, and in his one and only cross country season, became a Northern California champion.
Esqueda set a Toro Park course record at the Northern California finals. An All-American, his time at the state finals is the seventh-fastest in school history.
Edgar Bonilla was a two-time All-Coast Conference champion, running the fifth-fastest time ever at Toro Park for Hartnell, earning a scholarship to San Jose State in 2016.
A two-time All-American at Hartnell, the former King City standout is the only member of this team to dip under 21 minutes three times at Woodward Park in Fresno.
Jorge Sanchez evolved from a little known runner at Alvarez to an All-American in cross country and a state champion in track, earning a ride to Alaska-Anchorage.
A Northern California cross country champion in 2016, Sanchez climbed 30 spots from his freshman year to his sophomore season to finish in the top 10 at the state championships for the Panthers.
Michael Ramirez had never run cross country until enrolling at Hartnell, earning all-conference honors in both seasons, helping the team to a pair of Northern California team titles in 2012-2013.
Despite falling in a crowded field early in the race at the state finals, Ramirez got up and finished ninth to earn All-American honors. His time at Woodward Park is the fifth-fastest in school history.
North County alum Miguel Gallegos soared at Hartnell, capturing a Coast Conference title as a freshman in 2010, earning All-American honors as a sophomore.
“I thought the seven selected were representative of what the aim is for our program,” Zepeda said.
You could say the same for the women’s team, a significant seven for the ages in leaving a standard for others to follow.
No one set the bar higher than Salinas product Malena Grover, who became a state champion, a school record holder and an All-American in her two seasons for the Panthers in 2015, eventually becoming a U.S. Olympic trials qualifier in the marathon in 2020.
“Malena set the bar for all athletes this decade,” Zepeda said. “Her goal was to break every school record and win a state title.”
She came close, capturing back-to-back Coast Conference titles in cross country, recording the top marks for Hartnell on three courses, earning All-American honors and helping the Panthers to a second-place finish at the state finals.
Before becoming a key member of the Adams State national championship track team, Grover set school marks at Hartnell in the 1,500-, 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs in track, earning five All-American honors in two sports.
No one showed more improvement in two seasons at Hartnell than Brandi Hobson, who evolved into one of the premier runners in the state in 2014, earning All-American honors.
“There aren’t a lot of African-Americans running cross country here,” Zepeda said. “She didn’t have a lot of credentials coming in. Once she caught fire, there was no stopping her. She was rock solid.”
More than a decade after her last high school race at Alvarez and after giving birth to her son, Arlene DiazLeal decided to put on the running shoes and see what a 29-year-old body could do.
All DiazLeal did in her first season back was run two minutes faster than she had 11 years earlier, winning a conference title and finishing in the top five in Northern California in both seasons.
“She was juggling a job, going to school and raising her son,” Zepeda said. “We accommodated her to get the best results. We take each individual’s situation differently. We are here to help student-athletes.”
DiazLeal earned a cross country scholarship to CSU Monterey Bay and will get her degree this coming spring.
Daniela Salazar is the latest Hartnell All-American, achieving the feat twice in 2018 and 2019, helping the cross country program to a second-place state finish in cross country in 2018.
On a current full-ride scholarship at San Jose State, Salazar was leading the state in the 1,500 and 3,000 last spring before the pandemic halted the track season.
Rachel Shimbukuro earned All-American honors in cross country, becoming just the third Panther to ever dip under 19 minutes at Woodward Park.
Monica Ruelas won the conference cross country title as a sophomore in 2018, finishing seventh at the state, an improvement of 47 places to earn All-American honors. She also ran the second-fastest time in school history in the 5,000, earning All-American honors in track and field.
Victoria Alcala dropped 90-plus seconds off her high school mark in the 5K for Hartnell, breaking the school record at the time at Woodward Park (19:02) in 2012.
Contributed by local news sources