Miguel Vasquez didn't even know running was a sport until a day in middle school when the annual pre-Thanksgiving Day race was held.
Vasquez won the race and the turkey that went to the winner.
His legs have not stopped since then as the Andrew Hill runner capped high school career with a closing stretch to remember, making a late surge to win the 1,600-meter run at the Central Coast Section championships and finish second in the event at the state meet.
Along the way, the UC Riverside-bound Vasquez sliced nearly 10 seconds off his previous best time. For this, Vasquez is the Mercury News boys track and field athlete of the year.
"It was an experience like never before," Vasquez said.
And one that arose after the low point in the season, a disqualification in the 3,200 at the Blossom Valley Athletic League championships that took a victory away from Vasquez and prevented him from running that event at CCS.
Vasquez had already won the 800 and 1,600 at the BVAL meet but was crushed that a lane violation prevented him from capturing what his coach called an unprecedented triple victory -- 800, 1,600 and 3,200. "He was devastated," Andrew Hill coach Jason Guven said. "We used to think of the 2-mile as his race."
But everything changed for Vasquez after the disqualification -- his training, his motivation and his results. "It was hard that night when I went home," Vasquez said. "My coach told my dad, and my dad was tryingto give me moral support. But the next day my coach called me, and he picked me up from my house and we went on a nice, easy jog.
"He told me that there are people who let this get to them or there are people who let this make them strong, and he asked me which one I was? I told him that I was going to use this to my benefit."
With the 3,200 no longer in his program, Vasquez began concentrating on speed drills, and the closing kick he always had got even faster. He ran a 55-second last lap at the CCS meet to win the 1,600 in 4 minutes, 12.48 seconds. In the state meet final eight days later, he passed five runners on the final lap to finish second in 4:08.44. He also placed seventh in the state in the 800, passing five runners on the final lap to finish in 1:53.16.
"He's the best I've ever had -- hardworking, diligent," Guven said. "He's really a student of the sport. He's constantly on YouTube watching runners he's going to race. He's humble. He's got great sportsmanship."
The son of Mexican immigrants, Vasquez will be the first in his family to go to college, an achievement helped by that day in middle school when he first learned about competitive running. Before the middle school race, Vasquez hadfollowed in the footsteps of his dad, Miguel Vasquez Sr., an avid soccer player. His dad coached him on the soccer field for years, and the younger Vasquez continued to play through his sophomore year at Andrew Hill. But Miguel Jr. gave up the sport after his middle school soccer coach told Miguel Sr. that running -- not soccer -- could lead Miguel Jr. to college.
Vasquez excelled in running -- he won the CCS Division I cross country title as a sophomore -- and worked hard in the classroom, staying up at times until 3 or 4 a.m. to study for advance-placement coursework. Through it all, Vasquez, who will run on scholarship at UC Riverside, noted that his dad was there for him.
"Knowing that he was working just to buy me running shoes, just to support me, that really pushed me," Vasquez said. "I didn't want to let him down. I didn't want to let my family down."
It isn't often an athlete of the year becomes athletes of the year, but this was a group that couldn't be overlooked or separated.
The Piedmont Hills 4x400 relay team broke a Central Coast Section record that dated to the 1980s with a time of 3:47.91 at the Mt. SAC Relays.
Pretty impressive in its own right, but an accomplishment that pales in comparison to what came after.
The team of Timarya Baynard, Bianca Bryant, Ellisa Bryant and Alexandra Diaz lowered their own record by three seconds at the state meet trials, running 3:44.47. Then the next day at the state finals the same team -- with Diaz running third and Ellisa Bryant anchor -- brought it down another three seconds, running 3:41.14 to win the state championship.
The Piedmont Hills relay team is the Mercury News girls track and field athletes of the year.
The Pirates became only the third team from Northern California in state meet history to win the girls 4x400 relay and the first from the CCS. Their performance, in the last event of the day, capped an excellent meet for CCS girls. The top three finishers in the girls 1,600 were all from the CCS.
"I just hope we did the CCS proud," Piedmont Hills coach Chioke Robinson said. "The CCS was showing off a little bit."
At the state finals, Piedmont Hills outraced strong teams from traditional powers Long Beach Poly and Long Beach Wilson, Carson, and Edison of Fresno, the hometown favorite, a team that chased thePirates across the finish line in the trials.
Baynard, running leadoff, was determined to make amends after a big disappointment, getting disqualified for a false start in her heat of the 400 trials.
"I heard something behind me and took off," Baynard said of her false start. "I definitely didn't want to let my team down. I didn't want any negativity carrying over into the relay."
Baynard ran with resolve and got Piedmont Hills off to a big lead on the opening leg, running a 55.4 split.
Bianca Bryant, a sophomore like Baynard, ran a 55.5-second leg, maintaining the lead. Of the four, she made the biggest improvement from the previous year. Robinson moved her up a race in distance to the 800, where she finished the season with a flourish, taking second at CCS and fourth at state, establishing new personal bests on each occasion. Her time at the state finals was 2:10.65.
The strength she gained running workouts for the 800 paid off in a big way for the relay team. In both the trials and finals, she ran her first 200 under control, allowing runners behind her hope they could catch her, and then really turned it on down the home stretch to pull away. Diaz, a senior and the team's short sprinter, ran a56.3 third leg, holding off the runners behind her.
"No short sprinter wants to run the 400," Diaz said. "It's a very challenging race. You finish the first 200 and there's still 200 to go. When I got the baton from Bianca my only thought was, 'I've got to keep this lead.' I knew it was the last race of my high school career, so I put it all the line."
Robinson had made the switch after Friday's trials, putting Ellisa Bryant, his fastest runner, at anchor. Getting the baton with the lead made the move pay off as Bryant, who placed third in the 400 in 54.64, wasn't going to let the lead disappear. She was timed in 53.8 for that last lap.
"I've always loved the 4x400, bringing it in for my team," Bryant said. "Once I got that baton I knew no one would catch me. I just got the baton and ran -- I didn't think. I wanted to put (the CCS record) out of reach."
Considering the Pirates broke a record set by St. Francis in 1989 (3:48.59) and lowered it by more than seven seconds, Bryant may well get her wish.