A pre-season goal for the Oak Park boys’ cross country team last fall was to win of a CIF championship.
And when it came to pass that the Eagles did in fact capture the title, it meant that senior standout Mark Nevers-who has established himself as one of the top age group runners in the country, along with his fellow seniors-would leave Oak Park with a legacy never to be erased.
Competing on the familiar course at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Nevers, in a time of 15:20, paced the Eagles to victory over second place Estancia and third place Big Bear.
Chase Ferrell, a junior, was Oak Park’s second finisher (and ninth overall in the race) with a time of 16:01.
Nevers’ close friend, and fellow senior Ben Saxey ran 16:20, good for 19th place, Taylor Hermes, a junior, ran a 16:21 (20th), and Igor Tregub, a sophomore (16:35) finished 25th.
The performance of underclassmen Hermes and Tregub, who is a native of Russia, provided head coach Kevin Smith with reason to be optimistic about next season, despite the loss of Nevers.
During the championship season, Nevers ran less than he had in his previous three years, a strategy that was aimed to keep him fresh for races that counted late in the fall.
"Focus meets" as they were dubbed by Smith, were the only races Nevers and a few of his teammates would run.
"Those are meets where we are coming prepared to race," Smith said. "Last year I tried to do that too many times."
In 1999, Smith’s Eagles might have had the talent to win a CIF title, but his runners’ legs were just too worn out, not at peak condition when it counted, and the team finished second.
In the fall of 2000, the new strategy worked thanks to the leadership of Nevers and the team’s camaraderie, something that Smith says is an offshoot of the hard work it takes to succeed in the sport.
"Within the sport of cross country, like in training for Olympic swimming," Smith said shortly after the 2000 Games in Sydney, "there’s a certain level of respect that emerges between those athletes derived from what they’re going through, the hard work.
"To know that five athletes from Agoura High School made it as Olympic qualifiers, allows us to say to our athletes, ‘Guys, this is something we could strive towards. Look at the history of this community in terms of what we have done as runners.’"
Nevers will answer questions over the next decade as to whether or not he can achieve the status of an Olympian. But during the fall of 2000, all of Coach Kevin Smith’s cross country athletes earned the unique distinction to be called high school champions.