San Jose Mercury News - Running with fire

As runners came down the home stretch of the Central Coast Section 3,200-meter championship in May, Palo Alto Coach Jeff Billing didn't have to watch anything but the expression on Philip MacQuitty's face to know who would win.

"If you looked into his eyes in that last 100 meters, he had something there that his competitors didn't have." said Billing, the Vikings' cross-country and middle distance coach. "Philip runs with fire."

MacQuitty, who turned 16 on Wednesday, made a dynamic move in the final 200 meters to become the first freshman in CCS history to win a 3,200-meter title. He finished in 9 minutes, 11.99 seconds.

Now expectations are high for the sophomore as he prepares for his first race of the season Saturday at the Lowell Invitational in San Francisco. The media coverage of his performance last spring has already attracted college coaches.

"I didn't expect to win that race; I was just hoping for a top three so I could qualify for state," MacQuitty said. "But I just felt it in the last 200 and went after it. I've had that feeling before, but never as much as in that race."

MacQuitty got into running when he was at Jordan Middle School in Palo Alto, and the summer before eighth grade he ran a 4:50 mile. He loved watching movies such as "Prefontaine," "Chariots of Fire," and "Running Brave," the story of American Billy Mills who won the 10,000-meter gold at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

"Those movies are inspirational," said MacQuitty, who has become a student of the sport and its history. "I love running with my teammates and experiencing that rush of adrenaline you get after a race. It's an indescribable feeling."

The Vikings, ranked 10th in the Mercury News top 15, have a talented young roster. Junior Charlie Avis is an accomplished cyclist who rides for the Discovery Junior team - he won a race in Belgium this summer - and also plays baseball.

"He enters every season in top aerobic shape," Billing said. "Our job is to get those legs from the cycling to the running mode."

Junior Rajan Narang is a two-time captain returning from a stress fracture who is expected to have a solid year, Billing said.

• Willow Glen senior Mohamed Abdalla, last year's state Division III cross-country champion, is coming back after a disappointing end to his track season. Nursing a sore foot, he failed to qualify for the CCS final in the 3,200 and finished fourth - one spot from qualifying for state - in the 1,600.

"Mohamed had a positive mindset and a bigger picture in mind. He didn't let that bother him," Coach Victor Santamaria said.

Saturday, Abdalla was just a second off the course record for Toro Park in Salinas, covering the 3-mile course in 15:13.

"Right in the middle of the course, he slipped on a downhill, fell down and got back up," Santamaria said. "He was going for the record, and that stumble cost him it."