High School Sports

Special Feat: Riverbank cross country program at head of class

Riverbank High cross country team members from left, Joslyn Beliera, 15, Stephanie Bernal, 16, Lydia Hodges, 16, Haley Richardson, 17, Sabrina Garcia, 17, Elitania Rosas, 15, Kimberly Ruvalcaba, 16, Emmanuel Chavez, 18, and Adan Chavez, 18, gathered on Wednesday (11-26-14) to prepare for the CIF State Meet in Fresno on Saturday.
Riverbank High cross country team members from left, Joslyn Beliera, 15, Stephanie Bernal, 16, Lydia Hodges, 16, Haley Richardson, 17, Sabrina Garcia, 17, Elitania Rosas, 15, Kimberly Ruvalcaba, 16, Emmanuel Chavez, 18, and Adan Chavez, 18, gathered on Wednesday (11-26-14) to prepare for the CIF State Meet in Fresno on Saturday. cwinterfeldt@mercedsun-star.com

Raking leaves. Eating turkey. Holiday shopping.

Those are a few things you can count on in November.

Oh yeah, and one more thing: Riverbank High School’s seemingly endless supply of cross country runners making their presence felt at the Sac-Joaquin Section and CIF state meets.

When California’s top runners compete for state titles at Fresno’s Woodward Park on Saturday, nine runners from Riverbank will try to build on a legacy born years ago that’s yielded several team and individual champions at the section and state levels.

The Bruins boys and girls have won 16 team and 10 individual section titles. The boys’ team total of 10 ranks fourth on the section list behind Jesuit (24), Del Campo (15) and Davis Sr. (11).

Maybe more impressive is that Riverbank’s German Fernandez (2005, ’07) and Maritza Garcia (’05) were just the second and third Stanislaus County runners to win state titles, joining Beyer’s Justin Willingham, who won in 1998. CIF records dating to 1987 show Fernandez’s remarkable time of 14 minutes, 24 seconds in 2007 as the fastest on Woodward’s 5-kilometer course by a whopping 19 seconds.

“It’s the culture that has been developed by the coaches,” said Ezequiel Ruiz, a former Riverbank runner who coaches track and cross country at Sierra High in Manteca. “It’s a culture of bringing out the best of the athletes there.”

Talk to any current and former coaches, and they’ll likely point to Bruce Edwards as the man who laid the groundwork for excellence. Edwards coached at the school on Claus Road for 33 seasons before retiring from cross country in 2009. His great interest in distance running, a background in physiology from his college days at Cal and UC Davis and a love of the student runners instantly put the program on the right track.

The medals and T-shirts after winning a team championship. The breakfasts at his house following early morning runs. The trips to the beach and snow or to the mountains to camp. His appetite for understanding the science of running and trying new training methods. Knowing when to hold back on mileage and being alert to the onset of injury.

All of it – big and little – adds up to great coaching, the backbone of any successful athletic program.

“I wanted the runners to believe in themselves, develop good self-esteem and know that hard work pays off,” Edwards said. “If they did that, success usually followed.”

Over the years, former runners used Edwards’ methods – with a few tweaks of their own – to help guide Riverbank runners. Current girls coach Monte Wood, boys coach Robbie Searway, Ruiz, Johnny Vizcaino, Jeep Oliveira and Dwight Smith, the program’s first girls coach, have earned Edwards’ praise.

Recent success under the guidance of Wood included section banners for the boys and girls last year and a third consecutive Division IV individual title by Mikayla Florez.

“Every kid is held to high expectations,” Ruiz said. “Every single coach has a genuine relationship with each athlete.”

The legacy is so deep, runners coming into the program know what to expect. Kim Ruvalcaba, a junior whose fourth-place finish at the section meet this month helped guide the Bruins to a second-place finish and a trip to the state meet, is a cousin of three former Riverbank runners.

“They wanted me to get into it my freshman year,” said Ruvalcaba, who ran track and field her freshman year and tacked on cross country as a sophomore. “They’ve always liked it and always had good stuff to say.”

Ruvalcaba on Saturday makes her second appearance at the state meet. She will be joined by Joslyn Beliera, Stephanie Bernal, Sabrina Garcia, Lydia Hodges, Haley Richardson and Elitania Rosas.

Ruvalcaba’s goal is to break 19 minutes, something she has yet to do this season.

At sections, Ruvalcaba finished in 19:17 on the hilly, 5-kilometer Folsom course behind winner Cassi Land (18:51) of Sonora. Ruvalcaba was the fastest female among those running in all divisions for Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced county schools.

“Kim just keeps getting stronger and stronger,” Wood said. “She’s smart and has race-savvy-ness.”

Ruvalcaba, who won the Trans-Valley League title, knows she’ll have to get out quickly among the leaders. Wood eyes a 5:50 first mile for his runner on the Fresno course that has “mild ups and downs with one steep short hill.”

“I plan to go out fast and stay up to the front and get a good time,” she said.

On the boys side, senior twins Adan (pronounced uh-don) and Emmanuel Chavez, who transferred from Santa Rosa High School in January, qualified with individual times.

Adan, also a TVL champ, finished second at Folsom in 16:46, 19 seconds behind winner Nolan Gerlach of Dixon. The only two runners in the Stanislaus District to beat Adan’s time among all divisions were Merced’s Daniel Ambriz (16:18) and Gregori’s Mario Medina (16:34), who compete in Division I.

“It was really tough,” Adan said of the Folsom course. “I thought I could have won it, but I didn’t have the strength.”

Both brothers got away from hill training when they left Santa Rosa. There also was an adjustment to the Central Valley heat.

Nevertheless, the two have found immediate success at Riverbank, where they say the training has been a little more difficult.

Adan’s goal is to “give it everything” and set a personal record on a course he’s run only in training. Emmanuel, who is a minute older than Adan, has, well, similar ideas.

The two have bet on races throughout the season. Among the stakes – doing the dishes. Adan has won each time.

Emmanuel, who finished fifth at sections in 17:01, wants a PR on Saturday. With a smile, though, he said: “The goal is to catch up to my brother.”

Wood, who has coached the girls since 2005 and likens the program to one big extended family, feels a fast start will be crucial for everyone.

The hope for his runners?

“I want all of our kids to run their PR on this course,” he said. “But the biggest thing is that they run well.”

Notes – Wood said Riverbank’s Yosemite Ruelas is back running after collapsing about a half-mile from the finish line in a section junior varsity race. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Wood said. “It was very frightening.” Wood said Ruelas, a junior, was running well but noticed she was laboring toward the end. He went to the finish line to wait for her, but she never arrived. He then heard a call for emergency personnel. Luckily for Ruelas, Placer assistant coach Kevin Vasquez was at her side and Placer head coach Randall Fee was there shortly after. “In my 13 years,” Fee said, “it was the scariest thing I had seen.” Ruelas was laboring to breathe, Fee said. They carried her to emergency crews, who whisked her to a nearby hospital in Folsom. She later was taken to UC Davis Medical Center, where she spent the night, Wood said. Doctors have not discovered what went wrong, Wood said. But after a series of tests, she was cleared to run this week.

▪ The top two section finishers in Division IV – Sonora’s Land and Bret Harte’s Kaela Dishion – are freshmen.

▪ There will be 218 runners representing the Sac-Joaquin Section in Fresno.

Bee senior editor for Digital and Sports Brian Clark can be reached at bclark@modbee.com or (209) 578-2362. Follow him on Twitter @BrianClarkMod.


When: Saturday

Where: Woodward Park, Fresno

Course: 5,000 meters. Hard-packed dirt trails with some grass and asphalt. Minor ups and downs with a short hill in the second mile.

Schedule: 10 races – five each for boys and girls in Divisions I through V. First race at 8:30 a.m. Final race at 1:20 p.m.

Cost: $10 general admission, $5 for children/students with ASB card/seniors, children 5 and under free.

Stanislaus District competitors


Division I

Daniel Ambriz, Merced

Division II

Atwater team (Jose Aguilar, Gabriel Espinosa, Francisco Gloria, Spencer Jacobs, Ozzy Nava, Andres Quezada, Alex Vargas)

Division IV

Bret Harte team (Marc Behiel, Colin Boblet, Joshua Brady, Nolan Johnson, Connor Landis, Tim Lunsford, Jerrod Wagner); Adan Chavez, Riverbank; Emmanuel Chavez, Riverbank; Kenzye Spears, Hilmar; Daniel Yanez, Hughson


Division II

Jackie Magana, Atwater

Division III

Haley Silva, Sierra; Iris Carillo, Weston Ranch

Division IV

Riverbank team (Joslyn Beliera, Stephanie Bernal, Sabrina Garcia, Lydia Hodges, Haley Richardson, Elitania Rosas, Kim Ruvalcaba); Cassi Land, Sonora; Kaela Dishion, Bret Harte; Hannah Hull, Calaveras; Ellie Waters, Ripon

Division V

Ripon Christian team (Miranda Ayala, Courtney Bloemhof, Brittany Bloemhof, Kayla Gerdes, Molly Hoeksema, Heide Tazalaar, Alysia Templeman)