ALAMEDA -- Sports pundits often speak of "career years," those seasons when everything comes together for an athlete or group of athletes. For 2012, the St. Joseph Notre Dame High school boys cross team enjoyed such a year, as the Pilots won the California Interscholastic Federation Division V state title on Nov. 24 and received a city proclamation in recognition of the feat on Dec. 11.
Other sports catchphrases and buzzwords include "next year" and "repeat." To that end, seniors Louis Rodrigues, Sam Levy-Wendt and James LaFollette will graduate from the current Pilots squad. Still, SJND holds high hopes for 2013 behind a group of returning runners and the prospect of potentially talented newcomers.
Current junior Gabe Arias-Sheridan leads the way. Arias-Sheridan, who began showing his distance-running mettle in Catholic Youth Organization competition as a student at St. Philip Neri School, was the Pilots' top finisher at the state meet in Fresno, placing fifth individually while completing the 5-kilometer course in 15 minutes, 58 seconds.
For 2012, Arias-Sheridan and his fellow runners had to overcome much adversity -- particularly the death of Denise Fong, wife of coach Tony Fong, on Nov. 13. As it was, expectations already were high after a strong performance at state in 2011.
"There was a little bit of pressure on us, as we got third place last year," Arias-Sheridan said. "We weren't having great races in the middle of the season. We had to pick up the pace, and so we did."
LaFollette picked up his pace to its highest level in Fresno. Though his effort did not count in the Pilots' score as the team's sixth finisher, LaFollette ultimately sealed the win by placing 43rd overall (16:57), five places better than Flintridge's fifth runner.
"In that last 800 meters of the race, Kim Avalos (of the SJND girls team) yelled, 'This is it, no more races,' so I kicked it in a switch," LaFollette said. "The legs started turning and I caught that last guy. After that, 99 percent of my energy just drained from my body. I had given it all I had."
Sophomore Matthew Murphy -- a newcomer to the cross-country team this year -- provided another key effort when he finished 28th (16:35), one place ahead of Flintridge's fourth runner.
"I wasn't expecting to do this well," Murphy said. "Cross country is only as good as the coach and the runners you run with; I don't think I could have been as good without them.
Just ahead, sophomore Michael Murphy -- Matthew's twin -- placed 25th overall (16:30) with Rodrigues 26th (16:34).
Levy-Wendt rounded out SJND's scorers in 33rd (16:43), and junior Chris Melendez ran 73rd (17:23) as the Pilots' seventh finisher.
"It was really awesome," Michael Murphy said of the whole experience.
Other achievements might lie ahead for the 2012 SJND cross country runners. But this championship season -- a career year by any measure -- will stay in memory for years.