EDINBURG — Nearly two years ago, Edinburg North’s San Juanita Leal’s meteoric rise kicked off at the Monte Cristo Golf Course in Edinburg. The then-sophomore picked up her first varsity cross country win on the course during the Rio Grande Valley Coaches Association’s Meet of Champions.
Leal has been on a tear since then, reeling off eight straight victories against RGV competition, and adding two district titles, a regional crown and a top-four state meet finish.
In fitting fashion, Leal kicked off her senior year at the place her high school career took off, picking up her ninth straight win against Valley foes during the RGV Classic XC Invitational on Saturday at the Monte Cristo Golf Course.
“It feels pretty good, winning on this course,” Leal said. “I really like this course. I recognize it and know it. I know where the markers are. It just goes by really fast.”
Leal picked up her senior year right where she left off last season, recording a sub-18-minute time for the ninth time in her career. Last season, she became just the fourth RGV female distance runner to break the 18-minute mark.
The Cougars’ distance runner clocked in at 17 minutes, 43.7 seconds during her senior debut, finishing nearly a minute ahead of the next closest competitor. Edinburg Economedes Madison Surita finished second with a time of 18:32.2, followed by La Joya Palmview’s Genesis Ramirez (19:30.6.).
“I feel pretty good,” Leal said. “My time wasn’t what I wanted, but I was just trying to get a feel for things in my first race. I think I was pretty good with my pacing. Usually, I start off on my first mile very fast and end up slowing down a lot. This race, though, I was pretty happy with my pacing.”
Leal’s dominance hasn’t come without any challenges. Her rising stock has garnered her statewide and national attention, earning her spots in national races against top competition.
She’s held her own among the best, last season coming in second during the NXR South Regional Championships and finishing 51st out of 195 competitors during the NXN Nike Cross Nationals.
Competing against the top runners in the nation has helped her grow as a runner, Leal said, priming her for a potential state title run this year.
“Those national meets are so different,” Leal said. “Last year was my first time running in national races Of course, you have good and bad moments. All you can do is learn from them and take that experience and use it to do even better the next time. … I know that I have to work a lot harder. My goal for the end of the season is to try and win state.”
Leal wasn’t the only Edinburg North senior to have a big day Saturday. Alexis Rodriguez captured his first win of the season during the boys race.
Rodriguez clocked in at 15:25.2 during the victory, setting a new school record. He came in more than 30 seconds faster than the next finisher, with McAllen Memorial’s Roehl Rodriguez finishing in second with a time of 16:06.1. Weslaco East’s Adrianno Gonzalez came in third in 16:11.6.
“I felt really excited coming into this race,” Rodriguez said. “My training has been pretty good recently. I’ve been feeling at an all-time high. One of my past coaches, Doug Erickson, I really feel one of the quotes he used to use. He’d say ‘feeling like a million bucks.’ Today I felt like a million bucks.”
In La Feria, the Lions and Lionettes continued to dominate, claiming both the individual and team titles during the La Feria Invitational at La Feria High School.
Sophomore Armando Morales led the Lions’ boys team to the win, picking up his second straight individual win with a time of 15:58.3. Lasara’s Jose Ventura came in second in 16:12.8, followed by La Feria’s Evan Torres (17:23.7) in third.
In the girls race, Lianna Navarro and Cierra Garcia finished 1-2 for a second straight meet to lead the Lionettes to another team win. Navarro clocked in at 11:44.8 in the two-mile race, followed by Garcia in 12:08.8.
In Donna, PSJA Southwest junior Yazmin Guerra took home the individual win in the varsity girls division during the Donna ISD Invitational, her first of the year. She finished in 19:15.2 for the victory, followed by Santa Maria’s Mia Picazo (21:00.7).
Donna North’s Ricardo Chacon took the victory in the boys race, finishing in 16:37.6. Chacon was one of four Donna North runners to finish in the top five, resulting in a team win for the Chiefs.
For full results from Saturday’s cross country action, visit MyRGV.com.