Steady improvement propels Wingate junior to title
By Sunnie R. Clahchischiligi
Special to the Times
RIO RANCHO, N.M.
Meet by meet, Wingate junior Jewels Leslie saw a little bit of improvement this season.
She saw a hint of it in her first meet, later at the state preview meet, and then saw it all come together at the New Mexico High School Cross Country Championships when she placed first in the 3A girls’ race and earned her first-ever state title.
Leslie said it was a season of trusting the process, and it paid off last weekend when she finished in a time of 19:34.75.
“I just had to be patient and let things play itself out,” she said. “Then trust what my coach told me. He was a runner too so I kind of just bounced off of his experiences.”
Leslie practiced that patience even in her race on Saturday at Rio Rancho High School. She took a strong, but not leading, start and kept her pace with the front pack.
It wasn’t until about a mile in that she made her move to the head of the pack.
Leslie said it was a moment she had trained for long before the state meet, and long before the start of this season.
“I did good. I think that I really improved a lot especially in a lot of my speed work,” she said. “I did track last year and I think that really helped me, and then I just tried to push the whole way.”
Leslie said though the improvements were there, she never really saw herself crossing the finish line in first place.
She said she found herself turning in average races and times, but didn’t think they would amount to a win.
“I honestly didn’t expect this. I started off kind of, I was OK,” Leslie said. “My first race I placed fifth and it just kind of started from there … I just started to push myself. I felt like even though I was by myself (in some races), I could even go even farther.”
It didn’t help that she barely qualified to run in the state race last season. She placed 35th last season in the very same race.
Leslie said it was really a season of building and improving that worked in her favor at the end.
She said she knows that she seized an opportunity and worked hard to get to the top, but feels the best is yet to come.
“I kind of keep in mind that there are still going to be other runners who are going to want to win (next year), so I have to stay focused,” Leslie said. “I think that it (the win) gives me an opportunity and tells myself that I have a chance to do bigger things and have bigger opportunities.”
Leslie unknowingly made history by earning Wingate’s first girls’ cross country individual state title in 17 years. The last one to do so was Cateka Tsosie in 2002.
Nipping at Leslie’s heels this year was Laguna Acoma junior Sidney Cheromiah who finished second overall in 19:51.10.
Cheromiah kept pace with Leslie for most of the race and was proud of her ability to do so.
She said there were some changes that could have been made to her race, but she was happy with her performance overall.
“If only I would have just picked it up more,” she said. “From the back of the hill, she (Leslie) started to pick up more, that’s where I lost her. I could have pushed a little more, but I think I gave it my all.”
Cheromiah finished first in the district race, which she said boosted her confidence coming into the final meet.
She said there wasn’t much she could do once Leslie took the opportunity to gain leverage and then later to extend it.
“I’m proud of myself and my performance,” she said. “I just can’t believe I got second. I’m just shocked.”
Cheromiah spent the last few years transferring between schools and found herself back at Laguna Acoma, where she started to take running seriously again.
She said it was nice to know she could do well in spite of her history.
“I didn’t think I would be here, at this place, after going to a different school then coming back to LA and coming back here,” Cheromiah said.
This was only her second-ever state championship appearance. In her first two seasons ago, she finished 52nd overall.
With one more year to go, Cheromiah said she’s looking to return even stronger next season.
“I probably work harder. I want to win state before I graduate,” she said.
Making things difficult for both Leslie and Cheromiah was Zuni’s Alexandria Bewanika.
The sophomore runner kept the juniors ahead of her on their toes throughout the race, following closely in third place.
Bewanika finished third overall in a time of 20:00.95 and first for the Lady Thunderbirds.
The young runner said her race was a mental one as she found herself continuously trying to keep motivated in order to finish in the top 10.
“I did OK, I did what I normally do going out, then in the middle of the course, I started to get tired,” she said. “But at the half-mile mark, I started pushing myself again.”
Bewanika said she’s spent the entire season doing just that: pushing herself as much as possible so that she could improve and finish well in the state meet.
She said it all paid off in the end.
“I just kept pushing myself, having that confidence in myself, saying that I can do it,” Bewanika said.
She qualified for state last season and finished 21st overall. She also moved from being a contributing runner to the team, to being one of the top finishers for the team.
Bewanika was pushed to the wire in the last seconds of the race as East Mountain runner Marissa Case nipped at her heels.
Bewanika said it was a moment of test, and one she hoped for going into the race.
“My coach was yelling at me, everybody was yelling at me, so I had to make a move and just push myself all the way to the finish line,” she said. “I’ve been looking forward to this all season.”
Bewanika helped the team to a second-place finish with 75 points behind Cottonwood Classical Prep, which had 54 points. Laguna Acoma finished in third with 89 points.