Published Friday, Nov. 9, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

Runners return after car accident

Special to the Mercury News

Cynari Haralson and her teammates are still haunted by the car accident that almost wiped out their high school cross-country team.

But Haralson, a senior, is even more surprised at the comeback she and her North Monterey County teammates have made in the Monterey Bay League. They finished in first place at 9-0, and Saturday they will compete in the Central Coast Section finals, barely more than a year after the Nov. 2 accident that nearly devastated the team.

Eight girls -- seven varsity runners and one backup -- began practice that day on Castroville Boulevard. A 17-year-old girl in a Mitsubishi Eclipse was swerving on the two-lane road when her brakes locked up and the car veered sideways into the pack.

``It was pretty unreal at first, and after awhile I was coming in and out of consciousness for the first half-hour or so,'' runner Shelly Jones said. ``I knew it wasn't a dream when everyone who was driving beside us was getting out of their cars and running to us and trying to help us.''

Three girls sustained injuries from broken bones: Elaine Schreiber broke her right collarbone, Meri Hawkins her right foot and Jones her leg. Haralson had ankle and shoulder injuries. Ashley Hernandez, Chante Magpusao, Kai Parker and Candace Vilebaum suffered bruises, contusions, scrapes and cuts. The driver was remanded to her parents' custody until age 21 and her driver's license was suspended for one year.

Five of the eight runners have returned to the Condors: Haralson, Hernandez, Hawkins, Schreiber and Jones. The remaining three graduated.

The varsity girls all run under 22 minutes, and six finished in the top 12 at league finals. Schreiber's time has come down by two minutes, and Haralson, who was voted to the all-league team, brought her time down by one minute.

Coach Jesse Soliven, who was yet to join the girls on their run when the accident occurred, opted not to have his team run on the road this year. He stepped up the team's speed work on the track and has had parents drive the girls to local beaches or parks to do distance running.

``It was the worst nightmare,'' Soliven said. ``I've guarded against it for the last nine years, and to have it happen was a nightmare for me.''

Haralson is relieved that her team doesn't practice on Castroville, even though the boys team still uses the road -- with certain safety provisions.

``I would never run on that road,'' Haralson said. ``We see the guys running out there, and we don't like it. We tell them to be careful.''