For the third time in as many years, senior Natasha Strickland captured the Orange Coast League individual title on Nov. 2 at Centennial Park in Santa Ana. And in doing so, she became only the third girl in school history to break the 18-minute barrier. “I really wanted to get that PR my final year in high school,” she said. “When I came through at 17:36, I was really happy.”
Not only did she set a new personal record, she obliterated her previous mark by more than 45 seconds. She is now in exclusive company with Laguna alums Lindsey Buwalda (17:33 in ’96) and Alex Crawley (17:55 in ’05). Strickland also is one of only four Laguna girls to break 19 minutes on the notoriously hilly Mt. SAC course in Walnut, the site of CIF finals, trailing only Crawley and Buwalda. Linda Booth (18:58 in 1981) is the fourth.
The four-year varsity stand out seems to be at her best when the stakes are highest. As a freshman, she finished third at league finals with a time of 19:23. The following season she ran 18:22 to edge teammate and then senior McKenna Nokes (’09) by one second to win her first of three straight titles That time stood as her PR until the final regular season race of her career.
Strickland’s impact on the cross-country program is made all the more significant considering that she took up the sport only to get in better shape for soccer. Before the end of her freshman year, she found herself drawn to the solace of the sport and dropped soccer to run full time. “It relieves my stress,” she said.
From the beginning, Strickland’s mother, Carista, a marathoner, took an assistant coaching position under Lalim to spend more time with her daughter. From proper diet to pre-race stretching, Carista’s influence and nurturing soon had the novice runner on the straight and narrow path to success.
The last two seasons, the soccer-player-turned-runner has been in a class of one. Her margin of victory last year at league finals was 46 seconds. This year it was nearly two minutes. She was so dominant that runners and students from every school stood along the course and cheered her on as she blazed her way to an unprecedented three-peat. “It was a really uplifting feeling,” she said of the outpouring of support and admiration.
Strickland’s victory was one of the few Breaker highlights on a warm fall day that saw a hard charging Godinez squad snap Laguna’s string of four straight team titles. After losing to the Breakers by one point at the OCL cluster meet in late September, the Grizzlies squeaked out a six-point victory despite a valiant effort by a young Laguna team that included a sophomore and the only two freshmen to finish among the top 13 overall.
Losing only Strickland and fellow senior Marissa Merchant from his starting seven, Lalim will have a lot to work with next season and beyond. “I think our program is at the start of several years of a highly competitive team,” said fourth year head coach Steve Lalim in an email.
But for all its young talent, Laguna still had no one to push Strickland to better times. She depended mainly on the competition she faced at the larger invitationals. “My goal is always to stay with that top pack of girls,” she said.
The team’s new assistant coach Mike Berger, who paces Strickland in practice, has also helped her stay on track this season. But what really helped her turn the corner and make a late season push was, oddly enough, a bout with bursitis in her left hip that knocked her out of early season competition. “Those two weeks not only put my body at rest but my mind at rest,” she said.
She returned with a renewed sense of urgency and drive to put up the kind of times that would attract top college programs. She is currently looking at University of San Francisco, USC, University of San Diego and Loyola Marymount.
But before she decides on a college, she is focused on helping her team return to Fresno after a one-year absence. Currently ranked sixth in CIF, the Breakers have a legitimate shot. The top seven at CIF finals go on to state. The boys, currently ranked ninth in CIF, have an outside chance of advancing to state.
If the girls fall short, Strickland is a near lock to go on without them. At the five-kilometer Woodward Park course, the site of state finals, Strickland’s 19:07 two years ago trails only Crawley’s 18:55 from ’04 on the school’s all-time list. “My primary goal would be finishing in the top 10 in my division,” she said, which would earn her a place with Crawley as Laguna’s only all-state honorees.
“In my opinion, she is the best cross-country runner in LBHS history,” said Lalim.
Laguna Girls Varsity League Final
1 Natasha Strickland 17:3
7 Jane Crawford 19:34
8 Marisa Merchant 19:35
10 Eliza Romero 19:47
12 Kayla Baskevitch 20:08
13 Carlee Ressler 20:16
16 Monica White 20:50.75
Godinez 32 points
Laguna Beach 38 points
Calvary Chapel 81 points
Laguna Boys Varsity League Final
3 Jeff White 15:50
14 Veda Rebollar 16:31
15 Jack Crawford 16:39
16 Ryan Jones 16:43
17 Tyler Nichols 16:51
19 Stone Riff 17:03
24 John Kimball 17:28
Godinez 33 points
Saddleback 48 points
Laguna Beach 65 points