Two years ago, Donald Plazola was searching for a new path in his life. An unstable family situation had left him floating between houses of extended family members.
On Saturday afternoon, however, the Willow Glen senior's focus never wavered, as Plazola won the Central Coast Section Division III boys cross country race at Toro County Park near Salinas to lead his team to its first section title since 1983.
Plazola led wire-to-wire and finished the 3.1-mile course with a time of 15 minutes, 50 seconds, the second-fastest of the day.
"I had a bad start in life, was always moving, going from one house to the next house," said Plazola, who now lives with a foster family. "This is a true victory right here."
Mountain View junior Allison Sturges won her second-consecutive Division II girls title in 18:48, eight seconds ahead of Aragon junior Lauren Croshaw. Sturges' performance led Mountain View to the team championship.
She jumped out to an early lead, a departure from her usual strategy of locking in on the lead pack then picking her spot.
"It was a hard race because I was by myself for a while," Sturges said. "Then I heard the footsteps of (Croshaw) and I think it helped push me."
Senior Will Geiken's first-place finish in the boys Division-II race led Los Gatos to a title. His time of 15:21 was the fastest of the day.
Geiken was running third until the mile-and-a-half mark, when, as he said he had planned, he caught second-place finisher, senior Parker Schuh of Mountain View. Geiken pulled away to finish 14 seconds ahead of Schuh.
First-year Los Gatos coach Matt Snee praised Geiken's maturity and discipline to stay with his race plan.
"Will has been pretty much my assistant coach," Snee said. "He can take care of the guys when I'm working on other stuff."
Andrew Hill sophomore Miguel Vasquez (15:51) won the Division I race, though Bellarmine placed all seven of its runners in the top 20 to win the team title. The Bells finished with just 30 points, 65 points ahead of Carlmont (95), which had beaten them four years in a row.
Vasquez managed to survive a pileup of more than 20 runners on the first turn. He was running third with 200 meters to go before blowing past Milpitas sophomore Yohaness Estifanos (15:52) and Bells senior Kyle Rae (15:57).
"I didn't think I had it in me," Vasquez said. "I just gave it all I had."
Bellarmine hadn't won the team title since 2000. "Depth is our strength for sure," Bells coach Patrick McCrystle said. "But these guys have worked really hard."
Victory was perhaps sweetest, however, for Willow Glen's Plazola, who, with the help of coach of Victor Santamaria, went from failing all his classes as a freshman to a good student and CCS champion.
Santamaria, who was also Plazola's freshman geography teacher and has worked in group homes in the past, invited the kid at the back of the class to the front and then to try cross country.
"He had a spark in his eye," Santamaria said, "and seemed like he was interested in trying something like this."
Plazola said: "Now it's my dream to go to college. I just didn't want to live the way I was living anymore. "... Coach came at the right time, right place."