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Running start
Manteca sophomores surprising first season ended at state

Harleen Pabla was a year old the last time a Manteca High cross country runner — male or female — competed in the state meet.

“So shocked,” Pabla said. “I’m amazed that it’s me (who ended the drought).”

“It makes me feel really proud. I never thought that I could get this far.”

She runs far. She runs fast.

And she hasn’t done it for long.

Pabla is the Manteca Bulletin’s All-Area Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year with less than six months worth of distance training under her belt.

A soccer player for more than half her life, the diminutive Pabla is finally realizing what first-year Manteca coach Rick Cuevas saw in her last spring.

“When I came back to school one day after a (soccer) game he started talking to me,” Pabla said. “He said, ‘You should really do cross country, you’re really fast.’”

Cuevas is a veteran coach who previously breathed life into East Union and Weston Ranch’s programs. He knew he could do the same at Manteca with Pabla and Claudia Aguilar — both sophomores — as the centerpiece of the girls squad.

So he persisted.

“I thought about it and figured I should try it out,” Pabla said.

Then in just a few months time she achieved what many don’t in four years.

It started at the Lagoon Valley Classic Sept. 3. She took second in her first-ever race, but it was a 2-mile jaunt at the frosh-soph level.

“I still didn’t get the point that I was (good), but it was a good experience,” Pabla said. “When I was on the start line I was really nervous and scared. I just did the best I could.”

Cuevas had seen enough.

So in the first of three Valley Oak League meets he had her in the varsity lineup. She was jittery at the start of the 3-mile race, her first at that length.

Pabla took third.

“Everyone was shocked,” she said, “and I was getting (more confident).”

She placed third again in the second VOL cluster meet and the finale, earning all-league recognition.

In her first postseason appearance, Pabla’s goal was simple: Get to the next race. She finished 34th in the Sac-Joaquin Sub-Section Division-III event at Frogtown to qualify as an individual.

It was at the SJS finale in Folsom where Pabla fully realized her potential.

She was the top female performer from the area at Willow Hill, taking seventh in 19 minutes, 47 seconds. Pabla was also the only female from the area to qualify for the California Interscholastic Federation State Championships.

Amy Birmingham was the last Buffalo to achieve that back in 1997.

“My coach was telling me I was top 10 and that I’m going to state, but I still didn’t believe him,” Pabla said. “I don’t remember passing those girls at the end.  I was in shock and started crying. I just felt so proud.”

While she was the only Buffalo to compete at state, Pabla wasn’t alone. Aguilar continued to train with her as Pabla prepared for the big meet.

“She was there for me the whole time, even when the rest of the team didn’t have any more practices (after the section meet) she always ran with me,” Pabla said of Aguilar. “She would warm up with me and just encourage me to do better. I felt so happy, I’m glad that she’s going to be with me for the rest of the years.”

At the state meet, which takes place at Fresno’s Woodward Park annually, Pabla had friends and teammates wear custom-made shirts showing their support of her. She finished 84th out of 203 competitors in 19:52 — a more-than-respectable effort.

“Everything was always about soccer,” Pabla said. “After coming home with medals and stuff, I’m a runner now. I still play soccer, but I didn’t think I’d actually be running at the state meet or anything.

“At school they’d say my name in the morning announcements, which is weird. I’ve never had this much attention before.”

Pabla may have to get used to it.

The best, it appears, has yet to come.