Johnny Sandoval finished the familiar trail at Eagal Lakes in 18 minutes, 43.8 seconds, placing seventh in the Jaguar Invitational.
Not a bad start to the 2019 season, but the East Union sophomore discovered something about himself that day — he can be so much better.
The Manteca Bulletin Male Cross Country Runner of the Year was the breakout star on a team stocked with young talent that is pushing for state championships. The Lancers three-peated as Valley Oak League champions, captured their first Sac-Joaquin Section title since 1997 and placed sixth in the CIF State Division III Championships.
Sandoval won all three VOL meets this season, the first of which took place at Eagal Lakes. He clocked in at 16:30.0 in his return to the Tracy course.
“In the Jaguar Invitational, I ran a pretty dumb race,” Sandoval said. “I started off really slow, and the thing I noticed when I finished was that I wasn’t tired. I had the mindset that I was still the No. 3 or 4 runner on the team, but when I finished No. 1 on the team and wasn’t even tired I thought there was potential for more the rest of the season.
“Then in the first VOL meet I actually won it. I realized I can help lead my team to another VOL title and maybe a section title, too.”
Head coach Rick Cuevas lauded Sandoval all season for his hard work, which began over the summer. Cuevas suffered a brain aneurysm during the team’s trip to Mammoth Lakes the week of Fourth of July, and he took two months off as the Lancers continued to train under the guidance of assistants.
While the rest of the team struggled to keep its focus while Cuevas was recuperating, Sandoval stayed on course.
“When Cuevas had his incident the team had trouble staying together,” Sandoval said. “I just stayed responsible enough to do the workouts Cuevas wanted us to do. I did workouts harder than usual as if he was there.
“I paid attention to things outside of training like diet, sleeping earlier, taking care of my body, things like that. It paid off.”
After winning the VOL Championships at Woodward Reservoir in Oakdale, Sandoval placed fourth in both the SJS Sub-Section and SJS Championships Division III races held at Calaveras County Fairgrounds (Angels Camp) and Willow Hill Reservoir (Folsom), respectively.
East Union dominated the SJS finale, scoring 64 points while followed by fellow state qualifiers Atwater (82) and Placer (89). The Lancers’ first five runners finished in the top 21, and Sandoval’s time of 16:58.6 was the fastest among section competitors from the area.
“After my freshman year, (Cuevas) said we could win it when I was a sophomore I had been thinking about it ever since,” Sandoval said.
East Union now has something greater to strive for.
They got a taste in the 33rd annual state meet at Woodward Park in Fresno. Senior Marco Perez was the only Lancer to qualify last year, but despite the team’s inexperience — the team’s top five was comprised of three sophomores and a freshman — MileSplit ranked it No. 8 in its Division III state rankings.
Sandoval once again led the way, taking 26th overall (out of 217) in 16:03.2, as the Lancers took sixth (243) while North Coast Section powers Campolindo (47) and Maria Carrillo (64) went 1 and 2.
“We had our expectations pretty high,” Sandoval said. “Our coach said we can probably get top 10 since MileSplit had us ranked eighth and we did better than that.
“We surpassed our expectations and it showed us that we are better than we think we are. Next year, we want to end up on the podium, maybe even win it.”
Boys cross country
Johnny Sandoval, East Union, So.
Abrahim Alsaidi, Ripon, Jr.
Brian Arevalo, Weston Ranch, Sr.
Alex Cuevas, East Union, Fr.
Maury Ortiz, East Union, So.
Axel Rios, Sierra, Sr.
Jose Soto, Lathrop, Jr.