A Study on what it takes to be a Champion
Saugus High's Girls Cross Country Team
November, 2010 - Issue #73
For four seasons in a row, the Saugus High girls cross country team has been better than any other team in California. It's a squad that, with six of its top seven runners returning from a season ago, is expected to win a fifth consecutive state title this year. Only a pair of teams in the entire United States of America can claim a higher preseason ranking.

It should be an easy sales pitch for coach Rene Paragas to potential athletes, right?

"I have to beg," Paragas says. "I have to plead. I have to look around and find out what people got cut from all the other teams and try to talk them into giving running a chance."

What gives, you ask? Why is it so difficult to get athletes to join such a strong team?

Hearing about what they will be expected to do in practice probably has something to do with it. The same thing that makes the team great is also the thing that makes it not something for everybody: nobody works harder than a Centurion cross country runner.

It takes an uncommon work ethic to be the best in the state four times in a row.

"It has to be seven days a week," Paragas says. "It's every week for months and years on end, period, if you want to be good at this. If you're with us, you're essentially going to have no days off forever. Twice a day in the summer, our girls are training. We're not the fastest team. We don't win because of our speed. The reason we win is because we work really, really hard. We out-last everybody. We're in the thick of every race for the first two, two and a half miles, and then our endurance is going to prevail in the end. If you watch a Saugus High cross country race, that's how it's going to look."

Not everybody can handle these lofty expectations and standards.
Paragas doesn't always get to pick from what he calls the school's "cream of the crop."

He says there was one freshman this year that he felt would be a star runner on his varsity team. The student chose to focus on trying out for the freshman basketball team instead.

Others prefer the glory and attention that comes with playing football. On the girls team in particular, cross county is forced to compete with both club and high school soccer.

"They can ride the pine and play in garbage time or they can come and hoist trophies with us," Paragas says. "But that's just how it's always going to be. We've been lucky that the girls that we have gotten, some of them haven't even ever played a sport before, but they're willing to do the work and we've had some great ones. All the stuff we do, without the kids we've had, with other people, it wouldn't have worked. Something about these kids we've had the past four or five years, they have really made all the difference."

Among the Saugus difference-makers is senior Kaylin Mahoney, the Division II state champion two years ago as a sophomore and third-place finisher last year as a junior. She's one of four returners who finished in the top 25 in the Division II finals. Karis Frankian (fifth), Stephanie Bulder (10th) and Danielle Hernando (24th) are the others.

Bulder and Merissa Kado are two of Paragas' most notable success stories.

Neither senior had any athletic experience prior to high school, their interest in running springing more from a disinterest in other sports than a competitive running background.

"In junior high during our P.E. class, if you didn't play basketball, that meant you had to run instead," Kado says. "We hated basketball so we would just run together."

Four years later, they now run between 60 and 70 miles per week. Kado says she remembers one week in which she and her teammates ran 90 miles in a seven-day stretch.

On Sundays, when coaches can't have contact with their athletes, she and the other runners have their own practices, forcing themselves to hit the pavement at 6:30 a.m.

Is the hard work worth it? This particular group of kids has decided that it is.

"Days I get to sleep in are amazing," Kado says. "Those are the best days of my year. But [getting up early], that's what it takes to get better. If that's what we need to do to be the best, that's what we'll do. We're at the point where we can't lose anymore, ever. We won't accept it. It's stressful and it's a lot of pressure but that feeling you get when the season is over and you're the best team in the state, that's what you're working for."
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