Paul Denlinger saw two Los Angeles Valley College runners attack the hill in front of him at Tuesday’s Western State Conference Championships and wondered if it was foolish.
Ahead of them, the Cuesta College cross country runner watched Glendale’s Mizrael Mendes adding distance to an early lead with a move of his own.
As they approached a decorative tombstone that honored both the spirit of Halloween and the treacherous angle of the hill’s incline, Denlinger decided to push it, too — passing the two from L.A. Valley and eventually taking the lead on a home course he’s been racing since his prep days at Templeton High.
“He was going up the hill, and he was making his move, so I figured I might as well go,” the sophomore said. “Otherwise, I’m going to lose him.“At the back of the other side of the hill, I went for the lead and I held it for a little while, maybe half a mile, and then he took it. My move was made. I didn’t have anything late.”
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Hoping to help the Cougars to a championship sweep with freshman Devon Kelsey of the women’s team, Denlinger instead held on for second place on the 4-mile route at Fairbanks Cross Country Course.
Kelsey, a former Atascadero High standout unbeaten in her only four races this season, finished third behind two Glendale runners after leading some earlier portions of the 3.1-mile course.
They both helped Cuesta’s programs to third-place team finishes that allow the Cougars to advance to the Southern California Regional Championships at Antelope Valley on Nov. 4.
They live to race again, but Cuesta coach Brian Locher said the team expects more.
“That group of four guys that we knew Paul was going to be racing with, he’s faster than all of them,” Locher said. “The actual plan was not to lead, and he kind of deviated, and Devon did a lot of extra work leading the race where she didn’t have to.
“We gave up spots in the last 200 meters, where you need to be taking spots and you don’t need to be losing them.”
Mendez won the men’s race in 21 minutes, 20.6 seconds. Denlinger finished in 21:29.6, pushing at the end to edge out L.A. Valley’s Manuel Gutierrez, who crossed the line at 21:32.9.
With a team total of 40 points and a top-five that all finished 13th or better, Glendale took the men’s team championship. L.A. Valley (69) was second. Cuesta’s Tyler Gates finished 14th in 22:09.8, and the Cougars finished with 92 points.
Glendale had five of the top six women’s placers and took the team title with 18 points. Cuesta tied Moorpark for second with 68 points, but Moorpark finished second overall in the league standings after factoring in points from the WSC Preview Meet.
Cuesta’s Kasey Urman, another former Templeton standout, was eighth in the women’s race, finishing in 19.34.3. Anick Ospital-Cone was on her way to helping Cuesta clinch a solo second-place finish when she collapsed from exhaustion just meters from the line.
She was unable to finish, but Locher said she was not seriously hurt.
“She passed out,” Locher said. “If she had actually just crossed the finish line, we would have taken second for the women. She had an awesome race. She just put it out there.
“She raced as hard as she could for as long as she could, and I’m proud of her.”
It was a tough first loss for Kelsey, but considering it’s been years since she’s run cross country, the season has so far been a wild success.
After Atascadero, Kelsey went to Hawaii, where she didn’t compete athletically. After nearly two years, she transferred to Cuesta.
Now, she’s gotten recruiting attention from Division II schools Humboldt State, Stanislaus State and San Francisco State.
“I hadn’t planned on doing running ever again, but I thought I might as well get back into shape,” Kelsey said. “I didn’t think it would lead to anything too serious at a community college, but I improved a lot, so now I’m trying to run somewhere else next year.”
Said Locher: “Devon’s path has been huge. We didn’t really know she had this kind of talent in cross country until just this summer, really. Things started coming together, and she just started believing in her talent.
“This is the first race she’s lost, I think she needs that, and she needs to understand what it takes to get to the next level. She’s worked pretty hard to get to this level.”