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(Courtesy Photo)

Here in the southern half of the state, cross country re-districting was a bit inexplicable this season.

With the classifications in all sports except football reduced back to a five-class system, Artesia would already have been looking at an expanded District 4 in 2018, which would have included Goddard, Lovington, Portales and Ruidoso.

But with only Chaparral, Santa Teresa and Silver City comprising District 3, the NMAA made the decision to lump those teams into D4, effectively creating the largest district in the class with eight teams – and placing the Southeast runners into a district with schools five hours away.

That extreme trip was something the Bulldogs and Lady Bulldogs didn’t have to contend with this season, as Jaycee Park played host to the District 3-4 Meet Saturday. But the expanded slate of runners was.

As it stood, the Lady ‘Dogs were able to put together an overall solid performance on the day, finishing second and qualifying as a team for the Class 4A State Meet. The Bulldogs, unfortunately, placed out of the running for a trip to Rio Rancho, with one athlete – junior Derek Pacheco – qualifying individually.

“We were very proud of the way these kids competed,” head coach Sandra Pulido said Saturday. “They’ve come a long way. It’s always tough when you have a coaching turnover. I know I’ve been part of the program for the last three years, but it’s different when you get a new head coach.

“Slowly but surely, though, things are starting to turn for the better, and you can see a lot of improvement.”

The Lady Bulldogs opened the morning at Jaycee Park under perfect running conditions and proceeded to take advantage, compiling a solid group race.

“They were a little nervous,” Pulido said. “This was the meet that determined whether your season ended or not, but they did really well. A lot of them had their times improve over the last time we ran at home, and that’s really all you can ask for – for them to give everything they have and leave it all out on the course.”

Sophomore Shelby Kramer led the way for Artesia with an eighth-place time of 22:28.

“Shelby did a great job for us today,” Pulido said. “She ran a 22:28, which is a little over some times she’s turned in this year, but the thing to remember is that our district is a lot bigger now, and we were facing a lot more and better competition. This was a great time for what we needed to do today.”

Classmate Tayler Henry wasn’t far behind Kramer in 13th overall with a time of 22:57.

“Tayler ran her tail off today,” Pulido said. “She’s made a ton of improvement this entire season, and it’s great to see what she’s doing from where she started to where she is today.”

Also finishing in the top 20 Saturday were freshman Carley Simer and senior Kimberlee Bennett in 17th and 19th respectively with times of 23:43 and 23:49.

“In the last couple of weeks, Carley’s been kind of kicking it into gear,” said Pulido. “Her training has been going great, and it’s shown. In our last meet, she was at a 29, but she had a great race today getting that four- to five-minute improvement.

“Kimberlee is our lone senior on varsity, and she’s been a very knowledgeable team captain this year. The girls kind of look up to her for advice, and she’s been really good in that role. She’s been injured, so her training hasn’t been quite where it needed to be, but she stepped it up today and stayed in the top 20 to help us out.”

Finishing 30th overall with a time of 24:39 was sophomore Maria Reyes.

“Maria started off the first few meets on JV,” said Pulido. “I think her first varsity race was our meet, and she’s made some great strides. She’s learned that you just have to be patient, put the work in, and it’s going to come – it’s not something you can just do, it takes time. She stepped it up today, too, and showed a lot of improvement.”

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, finished sixth in the team standings, with Santa Teresa, Lovington and Silver comprising the top three that will advance to state.

Pacheco’s ninth-place individual finish, however, with a time of 17:36 earned him a spot in the state meet.

“Derek’s been solid for us all season,” said Pulido. “His times have fluctuated, but he’s been consistently in the top 15 or 20 in most of his races, and we’re really proud of him and how far he’s come. He’s just an athlete, but he puts in the work, as well.”

Senior Kale Mauritsen finished in 20th place for Artesia with a time of 18:23, followed by junior O’Brien Verdin in 23rd with an 18:25.

“Kale was also one of those consistent kids for us, and he took last weekend off to make an official visit to Western State, so it’s exciting that they’re interested in him,” Pulido said. “He’s also an athlete. He knows his body, he knows his paces and what he can do. In practice, you can tell him you want him to hit a certain time, and he’ll hit it on the nose. He’s really helped our younger runners with learning how to develop that feel for their pace.

“O’Brien is a good kid and a hard worker. This was his first season running cross country, but he seems to enjoy it, and he’s good at it. He’s only going to get better, and we’re excited for his future.”

Rounding out the ‘Dogs’ roster were freshman Noah Olguin in 40th (19:33) and sophomores Julian Martinez in 51st (20:58) and Devon Harrison in 55th (21:35).

“Noah came into the program a couple weeks into the season, but he works his butt off in practice, and if he sticks with it, he’s going to be a really good runner,” said Pulido. “Julian is someone who has to figure out what works for him as far as pacing, but his finishes are strong. He’s fast – he’s a sprinter, and he ran well today.

“Devon struggled a little bit today. He had a stitch in his side from the get-go, and I really felt for him when he was coming across the finish line. That’s a tough way to run a course, but he toughed it out and finished strong.”

While the ‘Dogs came up short of their goal of running at state as a team, Pulido says she and her staff are proud of what they accomplished this season.

“We’re really proud of their effort and the competitiveness they brought this whole season,” said the coach. “It was a learning process for all of us this year. You can’t get just anyone to buy into cross country, let alone show up at 5:45 a.m. for practice every day. These kids do a lot before most people even wake up.

“The boys’ field was probably the most competition we’ve had in a long time. Our boys had good times, but unfortunately, there were kids running in front of them, and they just didn’t luck out today. But they ran hard. It’s definitely bittersweet for us, but I don’t think any of the kids have any regrets about how they performed.”

The Lady Bulldogs and Pacheco will now spend the early part of the week preparing for their trek to Rio Rancho Saturday for the Class 4A State Meet.

The runners will depart at 12:30 p.m. Friday from the old boys’ gym at AHS.