When San Luis Obispo High’s William Ernst won his first PAC 8 cross country championship as a junior in 2013, he separated himself from the pack to cross the finish line at the Fairbanks Cross Country Course five seconds before his nearest competitor.
The quest for the repeat was not nearly as comfortable, thanks to an up-and-coming runner in an identical gold singlet.
Ernst used his senior savvy and 6-foot-4 height advantage to outsprint sophomore Callum Bolger down the final stretch to capture his second straight individual league title on a hot and dry Thursday afternoon at the hilly course near Cuesta College.
“It’s great as a team,” Ernst said of the one-two finish. “I love that he’s right there, but at the same time, he’s competition, so you don’t want him right there.”
Ernst took the race in 15 minutes, 37 seconds — 11 seconds faster than his winning time in 2013 — and Bolger finished a second behind.
“I knew he was coming and that he’d probably try to take me on the uphill,” said Ernst, who plans on running in college and is looking at six schools, including Cal Poly and UC Davis.
“He got alongside me, and then going down the hill, he started to pull ahead. But coming off the bottom, I know there’s a long way, so I was just matching him and waiting until I knew I could do it.”
While Ernst’s win last year helped propel the Tigers to the team title as well, Paso Robles used four top-10 finishes this time to win the boys team race with 38 points.
“I’m so stoked,” said Bearcats senior Zachary Chamberlain, who led the charge by finishing third overall in 15:55. “We could have won last year and we could have won the year before that, it just never worked out. But this year we were able to get it done.”
Arroyo Grande junior Leza Cassidy was the only girl to finish under 19 minutes, winning in 18:56 as the Eagles took the girls crown with 30 points.
Cassidy’s teammate, Talley Hill, led for the majority of the race, but the sophomore — who finished second as a freshman — ran out of steam in the final mile.
“Right before the switchbacks, my legs just gave out on me,” Hill said. “I could not feel them anymore, and then I started breathing really heavy and I got really dizzy.”
Hill finished eighth in 19:48, barely crossing the finish line before needing assistance to walk to the end of the chute.
About halfway through “I was like, ‘Wow, I have a lot more left.’ ” Hill said after the race. “How I felt there was how I usually feel when I finish the race, and I still had a mile left.”
That’s when Cassidy, who grew up in Ethiopia before moving to America with her adoptive family in 2011, pulled ahead for good.
“Up the last hill she struggled, so I tried to say, ‘Come on Talley, come on,’ ” Cassidy recalled. “But she was like ‘No Leza just go.’ So I went.”
Hill was far from the only runner who paid the price for pushing it in the 82- degree heat on the trail course with far more ups and downs than the Laguna Lake course ran at last week’s San Luis Obispo County meet.
“I think it’s definitely the hardest,” Chamberlain said. “You start off with a big hill, and then you have the switchbacks. I’d compare it to Mt. SAC, but this one is tougher.”
Arroyo Grande sophomore Christian Ricketts took fourth behind Chamberlain in 16:18, and Atascadero’s Daniel Tull was fifth in 16:22. Trad Berti (seventh in 16:31), Sid Monge (eighth in 16:32) and Joshua Potter (ninth in 16:42) helped secure the Bearcats’ team title.
San Luis Obispo was second in the boys competition with 56 points. Arroyo Grande was third with 59, and Atascadero was fourth with 94 to round out the top four teams that automatically qualify for the CIF-Southern Section prelims.
Atascadero’s Ellie Nisbet was second in the girls race in 19:10, followed by Paso Robles’ Annie Meeder (19:19), Atascadero’s Brittni Frace (19:25) and Arroyo Grande’s Rosa Granados (19:34).
The Eagles’ Angela Gemignani, who won last year’s race by a second over Hill, was sixth in 19:35.
Paso Robles was second in the girls team standings with 54 points, followed by Atascadero (61) and San Luis Obispo (93). In its first year competing in the PAC 8, Mission Prep was seventh in the boys race with 201 points and eighth in the girls with 194.