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Chico State

‘Ain’t No Runner Like a Chico Runner’

A throng of athletes and supporters raises a flag and cheers.
Photos by Jason Halley / University Photographer

Alumni and fans celebrate together after they came out to see Chico State Wildcats women’s and men’s 2019 NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships at Haggin Oaks Golf Course on Saturday, November 23, 2019 in Sacramento, Calif. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU, Chico)

When Chico State cross country coach Gary Towne first heard the news in April 2017, he was not convinced it was real. Then he confirmed it with some trusted colleagues: Sacramento would host the 2019 NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships—giving fans a local chance to watch their beloved and storied Wildcat runners make a grab for a national title.

When the day finally arrived last Saturday, hundreds of Chico State faithful lined the Arcade Creek Cross Country Course at Haggin Oaks Golf Complex waving their flags, wearing face and body paint, and straining their vocal cords with nonstop cheers and chants of “CHIIIIICO!”

The Wildcat harriers responded to the overwhelming support—the women’s team placed seventh overall (its fifth consecutive national top-10 finish) and the men’s team finished third (matching the school’s highest national placement ever and continuing its top-10 streak for the 20th time in the last 21 years).

A group of people supporting their school stand waving red flags and cheering.
With body paint and flags, hundreds of Wildcat fans line the course to cheer on the women’s and men’s teams.

“I’m just glad we worked as hard as we did,” sophomore Jhavahn Holston said. “The 7 a.m. practices, the 10-mile tempos, the long runs, the road trips, the high mileage. We worked for this. This just didn’t happen overnight. We all trusted in each other. We worked for this. We deserve this.”

In the women’s 6k event, a blistering early pace ultimately resulted in an exercise in pain management. Chico State moved up from its ninth-place start into eighth at the mile mark before jumping into seventh where its runners remained the rest of the way.

Senior Nora Pizzella set the pace for the Wildcats, finishing in 60th place. True freshman Gracie Dupuis was right behind Pizzella, placing 64th. Close behind were senior Talia Swangler (79th place), true freshman Destiny Everett (83rd place), and sophomore Taylor Bailey (103rd place). Senior Desirae Jones finished 124th and junior Haley Boynton was 192nd.

“We came into this race with big goals, and I’m really excited to say that everyone on our team put in everything they had today,” said Pizzella post-race. “We have a really young team and some of them have never been to a national meet before. And this is different than anything else. … They handled it so well and stayed composed and took care of business and did what they could out there.”

A women's cross country team poses after a race, with a crowd of people behind them.
From left: The Chico State women’s cross country team of Taylor Bailey, Nora Pizzella, Desirae Jones, Talia Swangler, Destiny Everett, Gracie Dupuis, and Haley Boynton placed seventh at the 2019 NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships.

The race capped quite a year for the Wildcats, who returned only four runners from last season’s NCAA Championships squad. They won their last three races heading into the NCAA Championships after starting the season with a third-place finish at the Stump Invitational and fifth-place finish at the Capital Cross Challenge.

With the exception of a 13th-place finish in 2014, the Chico State women have placed in the top 10 every year since 2002.

On the men’s side, the Wildcats held their own against the nation’s best along the looping 10-kilometer course. Despite not having any top 20 finishers, Chico State’s balanced attack helped propel the team to a third-place team finish.

Junior Wyatt Baxter led the way with a 26th-place finish, followed by sophomore Jack Emanuel in 30th, Holston in 33rd, redshirt freshman Rory Abberton in 42nd, sophomore Trad Berti in 46th, junior Remington Breeze 50th, and junior Matthew Herrera 137th in the 34-team, 262-athlete field.

Baxter, Emanuel, and Holston earned All-America honors, marking consecutive All-America efforts for Baxter and Holston, who join a select group of 11 former Wildcats who have accomplished that feat.

A team of runners wears matching uniforms and smiles as a crowd of supporters cheer behind them.
From left: The Chico State men’s cross country team of Wyatt Baxter, Jhavahn Holston, Rory Abberton, Jack Emanuel, Remington Breeze, Matthew Herrera, and Trad Berti placed third at the 2019 NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships.

Five Wildcats crossed the finish line among the top 50—a feat no Chico State team before them had accomplished at the NCAA Championships. The third-place finish was its first since 2008, and with nary a senior in their lineup, the men’s team appears poised for a strong 2020 season.

Following both championship races, Chico State’s Office of Alumni and Parent Engagement hosted a sold-out alumni luncheon inside The Pavilion at Haggin Oaks. Current and former Chico State runners and coaches, family, friends, and connected alumni gathered inside to reconnect with old friends, make new ones, and pay tribute to the cross country teams’ successful season.

For Towne, in his 24th year as head coach of the cross country teams, the day was about more than his teams and student-athletes making history. It was about being witness to the power of a collective voice backing a beloved University. And seeing hundreds of supporters travel from near and far to Sacramento for the NCAA championships, Towne savored the moment.

“This is what I dreamed of the day they announced that Sacramento was getting the national championships,” Towne told the gathered visitors. “It means so much that all of you took the time to fly out, drive out, run over, hike over. There are so many different people here from different eras, even from before my time at Chico. It’s incredible. It truly is incredible and I can’t tell you how much it means to me. I’m lucky enough to be living the dream in the center of this right now and enjoying every moment.”

A man smiles as he walks away from a crowd of cheering and supportive people.
Head cross country coach Gary Towne spent several months getting the word out that the Wildcats would be making a local appearance on the national stage. Turnout far exceeded his dreams.