Thai Gutierrez qualifies for state in his first go

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Gilroy's Marianna Bundros takes on a hill at Crystal Springs.

BELMONT—In terms of one-year sensations, it doesn’t get better than Thai Gutierrez.
The Gilroy High senior—competing in his first and only year of cross country at the high school level—earned a spot in the state meet after an impressive third-place finish in the Division III boys race of the Central Coast Section Championships last Saturday at the Crystal Springs Course
in Belmont.
Gutierrez was one of three athletes from the South Valley—Kaylah Grant of Live Oak and Emily Harris of Sobrato were the others—who advanced to the CIF State Championships at Woodward Park in Fresno on Nov. 26. Gutierrez’s time of 16 minutes, 6.6 seconds was only two seconds slower than winner Nick Hollister of St. Ignatius.
“I wanted to make state for my coach (Art Silva),” Gutierrez said. “I wanted to make him proud, and I’m glad I was able to do it for him.”
Silva said in his 11 years coaching at Gilroy, Gutierrez is the first male to earn a state berth. Gutierrez ran cross country at Solorsano Middle School, winning every race as an eighth grader. There was no question he had the aerobic engine to go far in the sport. However, Gutierrez moved to Los Banos just before his freshman year, and decided to try football because “I was always scrawny and wanted to bulk up a bit.”
Gutierrez ended up being a decent football player, earning a starting role as one of the team’s safeties in his junior year. However, Gutierrez moved back to Gilroy during the middle of his junior year, and ended up competing on the track team. Upon first meeting Silva, an emboldened Gutierrez said he would be one of the school’s best
distance runners.
Gutierrez backed up that claim and then some with a beautiful race in Belmont. At the two mile mark, Gutierrez was just a second behind Hollister. There were four runners in the lead pack, and the only question was who had the biggest kick at the end.
“I was in fourth going around the final turn, and at that point I knew I had to put on the burners to the finish,” he said. “This is the biggest thing ever. All of my uncles wrestled at Gilroy, but no one in the family has gone this far in a sport.”
Grant is well on her way to producing one of the finest running careers in Live Oak history. She’ll be making a return trip to state after a solid if not spectacular second-place showing in the Division II girls race. The junior finished in 17:48, 22 seconds behind winner Marea Zlatunich of Aptos.
Zlatunich had the fastest time by a girl from all five divisions. How impressive was Grant’s performance? She had the third best time of the meet, and was one of only six girls who ran sub 18 on the day. Grant and Zlatunich were side by side and covered two miles in 11:30 and 11:34, respectively, the fastest times of the day.
However, Grant couldn’t maintain the furious pace to the finish line, not after she encountered one of the biggest hills on the course shortly after the two-mile mark.
“That hill over there just got me,” she said. “It always gets me. … I’m excited to go back to state. There was a little less pressure this year compared to last year because I knew the comparison times coming in. I kind of knew where I stood, and just had to run my race.”
Grant has learned not to gun it from the start, knowing she has to conserve energy for the home stretch. Grant’s times are faster this season compared to last season, something she attributed to a change in her training routine. Grant swims in the morning three times a week and runs six times a week.
Last year, Grant rarely took a day off, but she realized her body needed rest at certain points in the season.
“Last year I had no rest,” she said. “This year I feel faster and better.”
Grant enters state knowing she can improve her time and place from a year ago.
“I know the course after running it last year, and that always helps,” she said.
Harris will be in the same race with Grant after placing fifth in 18:59.5 at Crystal Springs. It was sweet redemption for Harris, who was slowed by sickness at certain points this season. A year ago, Harris narrowly missed out on a state berth, and that motivated her to return for her sophomore season and finish the deal.
“It was definitely a goal of mine to make it to state,” she said. “I thought I ran a good race today. I didn’t want to take it out too fast on that first mile, or it’ll kill you. But if you strategize it right, you’ll be good for the rest of the race.”
As Harris crossed the finish line, she nearly vomited. It was the picture of an athlete who literally left everything out on the course.
“When that happens, I know I’ve run a good race,” she said. “I was going really hard, and I’m just really happy that I accomplished my goal. I haven’t had the best season, but toward the end I stepped up my game a little bit.”
Harris said it was a great experience running with her teammates. Sobrato finished a solid fifth as a team, as Rylie Hauge (28th), Maria Redmond (35th), Kelsey Valentine (45th) and Allie Wells (54th) paced the Bulldogs. In the Division II girls race, Gilroy’s Monica Ruelas closed out her career with a 39th-place finish in 20:34.
A state individual qualifier a year ago, Ruelas said she was hampered by a pinched nerve in her lower back that started to flare up after her magnificent performance in the MBL Finals, when she ran a personal-best 18:31.6, the only time she had ever gone sub-19 in her career.
“It just killed everything,” she said. “I gave it my all, though. I was just dead out there.”
Ruelas expressed pride in her teammates, as the Mustangs finished sixth in the team standings.
“Honestly, making CCS with my team running here was the best thing that has happened running here,” Ruelas said. “That was one of my goals—to be able to run with my girls. I’m also proud I got to run for our coaches for four years. It was the best four years of my life.”

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