First published in the Nov. 27 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Twenty-two years as head coach of the Providence High School cross-country program, Michelle Boucher is still evolving, tinkering with the program to bring out the best in her athletes.
“We’ve been trying to change the culture of the program to be more serious about running and have a more serious attitude. No more excuses,” she said.
This year’s boys’ team made none — even if it had a big one in the pandemic — and heeded the coach’s call, winning not only a Prep League championship usually won by Flintridge Prep of La Cañada but also the program’s first CIF Southern Section championship since 1976.
The Pioneers cruised to a Division V finals victory with 64 points, which was more than enough to claim the title over runner-up Los Angeles Windward (117 points), at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut last week and is competing in the CIF State championships at Woodward Park in Fresno Saturday.
“It’s great,” said Boucher. “This is the first time we’ve brought a team to state and it’s a completely different feeling. This group just knows they can count on each other. If one falls, there are other guys who can come and pick him up. This is by far the team that gets along best.”
The selfless group was led by seniors Xander Penaflor, who placed third overall with a time of 15 minutes 33.2 seconds, and Connor Flynn, who finished in 16:22.6 for eighth place. Junior Aidan Urbina crossed the finish line in 16:35.3 to place 17th, freshman Henry Virtue wasn’t far behind to take 22nd with a time of 16:53.3, junior Trevor Deane finished in 17:09.5 for 31st place, sophomore Dillon Yell was 49th with a time of 17:42.2 and senior Jackson Hicks finished the race in 20:09, which was good for 111th overall.
Boucher credits the veteran runners — Penaflor, Flynn and Urbina — for the program’s historic season. They began working mid-June and did not let up, and the rest of the team followed their lead. Rather than shut down after having the 2020 season canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the group continued to run as an escape.
“You can go one of two ways: focus and double down on what you need to do or you can shut down,” Boucher said. “They’ve been working every day since then, and the leaders really set the tone. They had the goal of winning league and CIF, and they wanted to do it well and be successful.
They figured out that they wouldn’t be successful if they didn’t put in the time and mileage.”
The Providence boys were not the only ones training. Aubrey Eaton’s hard work paid off by placing seventh in the Division V girls’ race with a time of 19:02.4. The standout freshman, who finished third in the Prep League finals, is also competing in the state competition.
“She is super excited to go as a freshman,” Boucher said. “She handles the pressure quite well.”