Castaic girls’ cross country is officially on the radar after a sensational breakout season in 2022.
The eight Coyotes overcame dozens of injuries, illness, raced with five runners for a majority of the season and still made it all the way to the CIF Finals meet.
Head coach Merari Hunter-Martinez has built the program since its birth in 2019 and finished the 2022 season at the helm of the 13th-ranked program in Division 4.
The Coyotes returned their top four runners from 2021 and Hunter felt like the team was in a good place. Freshmen Ashlynn Ennis and Claire Angles helped fill out the rest of the top runners and immediately made the varsity squad. Hunter felt bad putting pressure on her two young distance runners but was impressed by their readiness and poise.
“They handled it perfectly, my two little freshmen, Ashlynn and Claire,” Hunter said. “They did extremely well, they came out and ran with us, got familiar with varsity girls in enough time for the season to start. They were ready to go.”
Laura Lazzarotto-Bosque was another vital part of the Castaic team. Lazzarotto-Bosque stepped away from soccer to focus on cross country, impressing her captain and star runner, Kassidy Vargas.
“It just feels really good that all of our hard work is paying off,” Vargas said. “We went through a couple years where it was difficult to break out. We got lucky this year and had some new runners come in and help. It was great to be a captain and see a lot of our hard work pay off.”
Vargas made it to the state meet as an individual last season. The captain set her sights on returning to the meet in 2022 but to take her team with her. Vargas’ 2022 season didn’t end with that goal but her running and leadership was integral to landing Castaic on the map.
Hunter believed her team taught her just as much as she taught them, especially learning from her captain.
“I’m learning from Kassidy and going on this journey with her last year and again this year with the whole girls’ team,” Hunter said. “They all just really want to be up there with her. If we have bad workouts or they think that, she’s always there to talk to them to be a good captain, a good teammate and above all a good friend.”
After placing fourth in the first Foothill League meet, Hunter saw the team turn the corner.
Castaic finished first in the Twilight Invitational at Lake Casitas with just five runners. Vargas finished first overall right in front of the silver medalist Lazzaroto. Junior Alyssa Siglar finished in 12th place, just a spot up from Ennis. The freshman Angles came in 19th place to solidify the win.
The team feared the complete opposite after seeing Castaic listed as a “did not race” on the final results.
Hunter went through the cameras with the timing crew and helped fix a camera error to award the Coyotes first place. Hunter decided to kid her team a little before announcing their pivotal achievement.
“They came back from cooldown and I told them, ‘Nope they wouldn’t let me change it, they didn’t let us finish the race. Just kidding, we got first place,’” Hunter said. “They all medaled. It was really a nice day for them.”
The team progressed as the season went on. The team finished fourth in each Foothill League meet. However, the Coyotes tied with Valencia in the final meet and the Vikings were given the tiebreaker.
A few Coyotes qualified as individuals and Hunter opted to have her whole team keep training until every team member’s season was over.
However, after Castaic’s performance at the Mt. SAC Invitational, the team earned its first-ever spot on the CIF polls. The ranking gifted Castaic an at-large bid and punched the team’s ticket to the playoffs back at Mt. SAC.
“I kind of knew there was a possibility we could go but didn’t want to give that another heartache if we couldn’t,” Hunter said. “The team was happy to not know, they were more relaxed and not too stressed out. The following week, we came and were ready to go. They got their heads wrapped around the fact they made it. They set their goals on making it to the finals and they did it.”
Hunter then shifted the focus on being mentally ready to go. She knew the team was the fittest they’d been all season and wanted the team’s mentality to match that mark.
Castaic was more than ready and had four Coyote runners finish in the top 32. Vargas led the way with an 18th-place finish, with Lazzarotto-Bosque right behind her. The freshman Ennis crossed the finish line 31st, one spot ahead of Siglar to boost Castaic to fourth place.
“It was great to see them give their all, we got fourth place, which advanced us to the CIF Finals,” Hunter said. “It was exciting to see them being so confident and seeing them smile, because it’s hard sometimes for them to smile. Even when they have an amazing race they think, ‘Why couldn’t I do better?’ or ‘Why couldn’t I do more?’ They’re a little hard on themselves. It was great to see them finish fourth and know they were gonna move on.”
Castaic’s season would end in the CIF Southern Section Finals after a 14th-place team finish.
The underdog season was over, but Hunter was overjoyed to see the team’s hard work pay off after years of building the program.
“It means so much to see the team grow,” Hunter said. “It went from seven athletes and not having a boys or girls team, to where we’re at now. We’re still a small team of 22, but we have such great talent. I just want to make sure I do my part to make sure they showcase their talent.”
The head coach will return every one of her athletes next season after standing out in their sport as well as in the classroom.
“I think all my varsity girls are honor students,” Hunter said. “Not just on the course, but in the classroom too, they are exceptional.”
Vargas will lead her team through one more season in the fall. The captain is looking forward to returning to CIF and setting some more records in her program. Vargas’ 18:50.5-minute finish is the junior’s personal record and the school record for now.
“We’re definitely gonna have more seniors next year,” Vargas said. “So, we’re excited to race our senior seasons. We’re all looking forward to PRing and leaving some great new records at the school.”
Hunter knows the team is on everyone’s radar now. She credits all of the accolades and marks to the runners.
“As far as the program, it sets us on the map and gets us noticed by other teams,” Hunter said. “I want to go up to a meet and have people go, ‘Castaic’s here, ugh.’ The fact that we’re getting noticed, their hard work is paying off as a school and program, they set us on the map in the Southern Section.”
The girls’ team will enter the 2023 season with its first seniors. Hunter is excited to see how far the now-veteran group can go.
“Seeing the program grow the way it has and how each group is the founding class of varsity in our school — they want to leave a mark and legacy showing how well we did even though we’re a small school,” Hunter said. “I don’t ever want to put too much pressure on them. I don’t ever want them to feel like if they don’t fall within a certain place that I’m gonna be disappointed, because these kids could never disappoint me. They’re hard workers and I’m so proud of them.”