Rylee Guinn

Photo by Angelo Garcia Jr.

Rylee Guinn nears the finish line at the Bay Valley Athletic League championship meet last week. 

Given the entirety of the high school athletic calendar during the 2020-21 school year came after the New Year, the sports that were returning to their normal fall season had a shorter offseason than normal. That was true for Liberty’s cross country team. Unfortunately for the Lions, that short offseason probably felt like it took an eternity.

The Lions dealt with tragedy early in the summer when Matias Rogers -- who was entering his junior season and set to be one of the top runners on Liberty’s boys team -- passed away in a car accident. The Lions also experienced change at the coaching position when longtime coach Eric Morford took a job at Acalanes.

Just prior to the season starting, Morford called Jennifer Baptista, the mother of Liberty’s top returning runner, Dylan Baptista, to tell her that there was still no coach and asked her if she knew of anyone. After Dylan jokingly suggested she take the job, she talked to her husband, Steve about doing that. The two agreed, with the provision that the school allowed Max Ortega to coach with them. With no objection, they took the job. From there, the Lions took off.

Liberty’s girls won the Bay Valley Athletic League Championship, posting a perfect record in league meets. The Lions boys finished second to Heritage but showed progress through the season. After the Patriots defeated Liberty in the regular season meeting between the two teams, the two schools finished tied for first at the league championship meet. While the Lions lost a tiebreaker to Heritage, the improvement was obvious.

“I’m just really proud of the team for fighting the whole time,” Baptista (Dylan) said. “We lost one of our closest teammates and our close head coach. We came back strong, maybe even stronger than before and we almost got it. Next season we can try to maybe beat Heritage.”

While there was a lot of change in the Liberty program between the spring and fall of 2021, there was a lot of stability, as well. First, while the Baptistas didn’t coach before, the athletes on the team did know them. The transition has been smooth, with Baptista (Jennifer) winning the BVAL’s women’s fall coach of the year.

She gave a lot of credit to Ortega, going as far as to say that they “couldn’t have done this season” without him. Ortega was another new coach with a familiar face to the runners on the team. As a 2021 graduate of Liberty, nearly everyone on the team had Ortega as a teammate in at least one previous season.

The new coaches inherited a deep group of girls led by senior Kiran McWilliams, juniors Rylee Guinn, Karyss Mendes, Kate Costanza and sophomores Sarah Redman and Holly Tremain. Freshman Kelsey Peltz has been a big new addition to the team.

The success of the Lady Lions went beyond winning the league championship. In October, Liberty took 20 runners down to the Los Angeles suburb of Walnut for the Mt. SAC Cross Country Invitational. There, the Lion girls took second place overall in their race.

The Liberty girls are also seeded fourth in the North Coast Section, which will have its championship race at Hayward High School on Saturday, Nov. 20. There, the Lions will attempt to qualify for state, which will be held the following Saturday at Woodward Park in Fresno. If Liberty does not qualify, the top runners could still have a chance, as the top-five runners from non-qualifying teams will qualify for state as individuals, provided they finish in the top 16.

“I’m hoping that we’ll make it to state as a girls team,” Guinn said. “I would say with hard work and if we run the same way as we’ve been running in our last meets, we can make it.”

The Liberty boys also had a deep group of experienced returning runners. That included seniors Nello Baldocchi, Colby DaoJensen, Reid Welte, Dylan Leypon and Austin Kephart and juniors Ollie Lyman, Justin Fortier and Baptista.

The boys struggled some early. Baptista (Dylan) went as far as to say his team got “absolutely destroyed” at the season’s first invite. But as the season progressed, the Lions got better. The Lions will head into NCS with a group that they think has a realistic chance to qualify as a team and, if nothing else, qualify some individuals.

“Honestly I want everyone to have a good time, a good race at NCS,” Baldocchi said. “If we make it to state, that would be so much fun and so cool. But really, I want to see this team have a lot of fun and good times.”

The Baptista’s credit a lot of the success the team has had to Morford’s helpfulness. Once they took on the coaching role, Morford went to their house to hand everything off to them, including his training program. He also surprised the team by showing up to the BVAL meet to cheer them on.

And while Rogers is not there physically, he remains a fixture with the team.

When the Lions and Patriots compete, Baptista and Heritage’s Dominic DePiero will line up next to each other, with an empty space between them reserved for Rogers. Additionally, the team’s activities -- whether in a race, practice, fundraiser or other team building event, are always done with him in mind.

“I would say when we do stuff, we do it for him,” McWilliams said. “That really motivates us, to do it for him. Because we know that he would have been proud.”

Ortega, who was a teammate of Rogers for the previous two seasons, also sees how he’s influenced the Lions.

“I think they’ve definitely honored Matias in that they’ve put a lot into the little things,” he said. “They go the extra mile in all that they do. For example, during the warmups, Matias would run in the farthest lane on the track to get extra mileage in. Small things like that, our team puts effort into every pushup, every stride, just everything.”

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