Peñasco Lady Panthers pick up where they left off, win their home meet

Surprise emerges on the boys side as Gilbert ‘Gilly’ Valdez blazes onto the running scene with his first varsity victory

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Update: The Mora Invite scheduled for Sept. 2 will be held at Mora High School - not at Pendaries Golf Course - as was announced in the Aug. 31 edition of The Taos News.

Under ideal weather conditions that displayed a deep blue sky and a bright yellow sun – perfectly matching the Peñasco Panthers’ team uniforms – the 2017 cross-country season began with a bang in Northern New Mexico. Perhaps it was nature’s way of saying this was going to be Peñasco’s day. After all, it was on their home course, and the Lady Panthers came into the day (and the season) as the 2016 Class 2A state champions.

The annual Peñasco Panther Invitational cross-country meet was held at Peñasco High School and featured middle school, junior varsity and varsity boys and girls races throughout the morning Aug. 26. The hilly course with a pleasant mix of grass, sand and solid trail was a good season starter. Participating teams from the region included Mora, Maxwell, Mesa Vista, Moriarty, Estancia and Peñasco.

The race itself had the feel of a communitywide event – drawing many fans who gathered to witness for themselves their hometown champs in real time. Fans are fully anticipating good results from the Lady Panthers this year as they return six of their seven runners from last year’s winning team and a couple of up-and-coming eighth-graders.

“We’re coming into this season with high expectations,” said coach Ben Sanchez, who is returning as the head coach for his 18th season. “We weren’t at full strength for this first meet, but we still had a great showing.”

Sanchez was alluding to the absence of last year’s top runner, Carly Gonzales, who was traveling, and Bianca Contreras, who was resting an injury.

Indeed, the Lady Panthers had a great showing and claimed the top (low) team score of 20 points with the entire contingent of Peñasco runners coming in second through seventh places – almost a perfect cross-country score.

A perfect score is attained when the top five runners from a team cross the finish line in first through fifth places and the sum of each of the runners equals 15. In this case, two, three, four, five and six added up to 20 total points.

Rounding out the top team scores were Moriarty, which placed second with 79 points, and Mesa Vista, which came in third with 85 points.

Coming in first for Peñasco was eighth-grader Maricela MacAuley, who burst onto the scene with a second-place finish overall and first for the Lady Panthers with a time of 22:41.46. She was followed by Adrianna Tafoya in third place with a time of 23:39.81. Martina Tafoya placed fourth with a time of 24:19.27. Coming in fourth for the Lady Panthers and fifth overall was Jennifer Aguilar with a time of 25:02.09, followed by Estrella Gonzalez, who rounded out scoring runners with a sixth-place finish with a time of 25:02.78. This was MacAuley and Martina Tafoya’s very first varsity race.

On the boys side, another eighth-grader made a big splash in his debut race. Gilbert “Gilly” Valdez won the boys varsity race in commanding fashion – crossing the finish line with a time of 18:16.15 – beating the second-place finisher by 36 seconds.

Running side by side with the projected top runner in the field, Bryan Gollas from Mesa Vista, Valdez was able to pass and leave him near the midpoint of the race when Gollas lost his left shoe and had to complete the course with one bare foot. In last year’s state meet in Río Rancho, Gollas was the individual runner-up and also led the Trojans to a state cross-country title in Class A/2A.

When asked how he felt about his performance, Valdez gave a cool account of the various segments of the course and replied, “I still have a lot left in the tank.”

The boys did not score as a team, as only three runners suited up for the varsity race. Moriarty came in first with a score of 33 points, followed by Mora with 44 points and Mesa Vista with 74.

Next, the team will travel east to compete in the Mora Invite, which will be held at Mora High School Sept. 2. The girls may once again be at reduced strength due to some runners on the roster who also play volleyball. They will be in Tucumcari for the Rattler Invitational Sept. 1-2.

Peñasco cross-country at a glance

Colors: Blue and gold

Coach: Ben Sanchez (18th year)

2016 State A/2A finish: Girls first, boys did not qualify as a team

District 5-A/2A teams: Cimarron, Des Moines, Maxwell, Mesa Vista, Mora, Peñasco

Top runners

Estrella Gonzalez: Senior. As a junior last year, Gonzalez was the sole junior on the team. Along with Charlyna Gonzales – the only senior on the roster – the duo represented the upperclassmen on an extremely young Lady Panther squad. Gonzalez was on the heels of teammate Bianca Contreras and was pursued by Adriana MacAuley at the state meet to thread together a 24, 25, 26 overall finish. The strong showing by Peñasco’s last three runners cemented the first title for coach Sanchez and the Lady Panthers. Gonzalez brings a wealth of experience to a team that is still considerably young.

Bianca Contreras: Junior. As a sophomore last year, Contreras surged late in the season and had a remarkable turnaround during her last two trips to Rio Rancho. At the Rio Rancho Jamboree Oct. 15, Contreras finished seventh for the Lady Panthers and 61st overall with a time of 25:36.60. When she returned for the state meet three weeks later, she bested her team rank by two places and shaved 1:13 from her time on the same course. Look for continued improvement by the lone junior on the roster in 2017.

Carly Gonzales: Sophomore. Gonzales is the 2016 2A girls state runner-up and is hungry to stand atop the tallest podium after getting bumped off by Natalia Marrujo, of Mora; Gonzales was the individual state champion as an eighth-grader in 2015. Gonzales is the preseason favorite to win back the title. However, she should expect a fierce challenge from Kiana Chavez from Ramah High School, as well as Kalika Bryant and Jordan Louis from Navajo Pine.

Adrianna Tafoya: Sophomore. Individually, Tafoya gradually improved during the 2016 season and capped a late-season rush with a seventh-place overall finish at state. Her time of 22:02.40 was close to 51 seconds faster than her Rio Rancho Jamboree time and 32 seconds faster than her 2015 time at state, when Peñasco finished in third place. An ambitious Tafoya could make a strong case for individual state champion if the sophomore places it on her list of goals for 2017.

Jennifer Aguilar: Sophomore. Creeping up the ladder and getting better every time she performs, Aguilar is due to have a floodgate year. One of the strong suits Aguilar has exhibited, but has yet to fully utilize, is her explosive kick at the end of races. As a utility runner in track and field, she has demonstrated fast-twitch tendencies – easily transferable to cross-country (picking runners near the finish line) and the Lady Panther’s end-of-race strategy.

Ariana MacAuley: Sophomore. Like many of her teammates, MacAuley shaved a significant amount of time from her Rio Rancho Jamboree time – truly stepping up the intensity for the state meet and performing at a top level for coach Sanchez. Though not a scoring runner at state, MacAuley regularly proved pivotal to her team in 2016 by constantly pushing the middle runners to create a gap-free pack and dashing the hopes of opposing teams. Look for MacAuley to catch lightning in a bottle and surprise her teammates at multiple events this year.

Maricela MacAuley and Martina Tafoya: Eighth-graders. New to the team, but eager to prove themselves in competition, the two youngsters add a new dimension to an already strong Lady Panther squad. Look for both runners to have a short learning curve in 2017.

Varsity boys

Dominic Lopez, sophomore; Walter Brown, freshman; Gilbert “Gilly” Valdez, eighth-grader

2017 outlook

Boys: Currently, the Peñasco Panthers only have three varsity runners, so each will be competing individually until more athletes join the team.

Girls: Defending their title is high on the list of goals for the Lady Panthers. Without making a prediction – but offering a vote of confidence for Peñasco – there are plenty of reasons to assume the girls have a chance of meeting their main goal. But, with newfound success comes new challenges and challengers. The Lady Panthers will need to focus, work hard and not get complacent. Hagerman, Ramah, Jemez Valley and Navajo Pine will be zeroing in on the proverbial targets on the backs of the Peñasco seven. The key to victory will be to keep those teams looking at that target – from behind.

2017 cross-country calendar

Bold - denotes home meet

Aug. 26, Peñasco Invite – Peñasco High School, 9 a.m.

Sept. 2, at Mora Invite – Mora High School, 8 a.m.

Sept. 9, at Jemez Invite – Jemez Valley High School, 8 a.m.

Sept. 16, at Bosque High School, 8 a.m.

Sept. 23, at Pecos Invite – Pecos High School, 8 a.m.

Sept. 30, at SF Indian School – Cochiti Pueblo, 8 a.m.

Oct. 7, Northern NM Challenge – San Ildefonso Pueblo, 8 a.m.

Oct. 14, Rio Rancho Jamboree, 8 a.m.

Oct. 22, OPEN WEEK

Oct. 27, District 5-A/2A Meet – Maxwell HS, T.B.A.

Nov. 4, NM State Meet – Rio Rancho H.S., T.B.A.

Mark your calendar

The Panthers and Lady Panthers have a complete schedule and will put in the miles this year. Any of the meets that take place in the region will offer a stunning backdrop to view the various Peñasco teams in action. The Mora Invite is slated to take place at Pendaries Golf Course and could attract several Class A/2A teams from the northeast quadrant of the state. The meet could be a preview of districts, which will be held in Maxwell in late October. Also, the Santa Fe Indian School meet at Cochiti Pueblo could include multiple teams from the Four Corners and western regions, thus a sneak peek at the talent from schools like Navajo Pine, Ramah and Jemez Valley. Of course, the state meet at Rio Rancho is always a must-see event.

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