Boys cross-country runner of the year

By Peter Allen
Special to the Mercury News

Ben Sitler came down the stretch of the Foot Locker Western Regional at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut neck-and-neck with one of the best runners in the country.

That Sitler finished the Dec. 3 race one second behind A.J. Acosta of Oceanside's El Camino High School is inconsequential.

As Oscar nominees like to say, he was just happy to be there.

``Ben doesn't have an arrogant bone in his body,'' Coach Brian Curley said. ``He enjoys competition, and he doesn't mind being at this level where there are guys who can beat him.''

Of course, the St. Francis senior hasn't come across many who can.

Sitler ran away with the West Catholic Athletic League individual title on Nov. 2 at Crystal Springs in Belmont, covering the 2.95-mile course in 14 minutes, 59 seconds, half a minute faster than his nearest competitor.

He dominated again at Crystal Springs in the Central Coast Section Division III finals on Nov. 12, finishing with a 27-second edge on Willow Glen's Marcos Corona, a member of the All-Mercury News first team.

The Lancers went on to win their first CCS team championship since Sitler's freshman year, when they came in as underdogs.

``As a freshman, I didn't know that much about cross-country,'' said Sitler, who plans to attend Princeton in the fall. ``Coach Curley had me read a lot to get an understanding of what we do and why. He really stressed becoming a student of the sport.''

Four league titles and two section championships later, the Lancers boast one of the strongest programs in the state and one of the nation's top runners.

``Ben's an absolute joy to coach because he learns so well,'' Curley said. ``He's even taught me a great deal, and I've been coaching for a long time.''

After the Western Regional, Sitler placed seventh at the Foot Locker cross-country national championships, becoming the first CCS runner to crack the top 10 at that meet in 20 years.

Girls cross-country runner of the year

By Peter Allen
Special to the Mercury News

There's a stretch near the end of the Pinto Lake cross-country course in Watsonville where runners descend a hill, turn around, and ascend it along the same path.

Running uphill with the lead pack at the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League finals on Nov. 3, Jessica Van Ausdall knew she would need to finish strong to have a chance to win. As she passed teammates going down the hill, she heard them urging her on.

``It takes a lot to say anything when you're running that hard,'' Van Ausdall said. ``But every single one of them said, `Go Jess!' ''

Van Ausdall outlasted two Mercury News first-team runners to win the individual league title by three seconds. Harbor sophomore Christina Barrientos finished second, with San Lorenzo Valley sophomore Taylor Johnson in third.

Van Ausdall set herself apart with a pattern of consistency, saving her finest performances for the most crucial races.

On Nov. 12, she completed the 2.95-mile course at Crystal Springs in Belmont in just under 18 minutes, lifting herself and her team to Central Coast Section Division II titles. It marked the third consecutive championship for the Mariners and Coach Dan Gruber.

``Jessica has always been a gifted runner,'' Gruber said. ``She was disappointed at the end of last season because she didn't race well, but she understood she didn't give everything she had. This year, she ran with a sense of urgency.''

An eighth-place finish in Division II at the California Interscholastic Federation state championship in Fresno on Nov. 26 capped the year for an athlete who prefers not to linger on individual accomplishments.

``In cross-country, you're almost nothing without your team,'' said Van Ausdall, who is considering scholarship offers from numerous schools, including Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and UC-Riverside. ``When one person does well, everyone improves.''

Fittingly, the Mariners returned to Aptos with a state championship.