CHICO, Calif. - For the past year and a half, Chico State Cross Country watched other schools compete. Earlier this month, the Wildcats finally returned to racing.
"It was really rewarding to go back out and compete again," Head Coach Gary Towne said. "To have success on top of that was extra special."
The Wildcats didn't miss a beat at the San Francisco State Invitational. The men finished first and the women took second.
Brayden McLaughlin, a junior on the team, competed for the first time. A foot injury sidelined him his freshman year. Then COVID-19 hit.
"It was pretty emotional for me, just to be back and out there," he said. "It's the culmination of a lot of work, effort. Not individually but all together as a team. Everyone pushing each other."
"All my teammates and I were talking about how loud it was," Junior Gracie Dupuis said. "We've been running by ourselves for like a year and a half. Having people there screaming at you was surreal."
Coach Towne is used to watching his team dominate at cross country meets.
What he isn't used to? Rebuilding most of his team in only one season.
"I went through my most recent roster which was 2019. I deleted 22 of 27 women's names," Coach Towne said. "I probably deleted half the names from the men's roster."
Many runners either graduated or left the sport.
The one silver lining: Coach Towne had a lot of free time to do more personalized recruiting.
Some of the upperclassmen have also stepped up to lead the freshman runners.
"I'm a little bit quieter, but I try to lead by example," McLaughlin said. "It's exciting to have a young team. Everyone showing up to morning practice, weights, workouts ready to go."
The Wildcats are ready to pick up their pace and build on the success from their first meet.
"Last weekend was really fun, but it felt like it was new," Dupuis said. "Having already raced, we get to get down to business now and feel more comfortable racing."
Chico State's next meet is Sept. 25. The Wildcats compete in the Cougar Challenge at Cal State San Marcos.