By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Not too long ago, the University of Hawaii at Hilo women’s cross country program was pretty good, capturing back-to-back Pacific West Conference championships under Jaime Guerpo, who was named the coach of the year both times.
That was in 2006 and ’07. The Vulcans also went to the Division II West Regional in 2008 and ’09, placing 18th and 21st, respectively. They even had a few contributing locals on those wonder year squads.
“Those girls in 2006 and 2007 were pretty good,” said Guerpo, who’s in his 15th year at UHH, which now only offers harriers books, not partial scholarships like back in the day. “We get all our travel money from fund-raising. We’re not getting the top tier runners. But we’re developing and that’s the strength of the team. That’s what they all have in common. They run well together and want to win. That’s their goal.
“The girls we have right now are going in the right direction. We’re young, seven freshmen, one sophomore and one junior. They’re still big-eyed. Next year, they’ll get on it fully and by their junior year they’ll be better.”
As a team, UHH didn’t go to the regional in 2010, but sent a lone runner, Kirsta Andrew, who finished 83rd in the 161-runner field. (Attendance at PacWest championships are mandatory; regional trips are optional, if a school has enough travel funds.)
Then on April 16, 2011, the school announced the two-year suspension of three programs — men’s and women’s cross country and cheerleading — to reduce its athletic budget, saving $100,000 in operational, salary and scholarship funding.
A month later, community support raised enough funding to save the women’s season for 2011, which included a five-race schedule. The men’s program has not been brought back.
A long time ago, before Guerpo became coach, the men’s squad was dominant. In 1996, the Vulcans won every team and individual title, and were the two-time defending conference champion.
That loaded team was bolstered with two transfers from Division II national champion Western State College of Colorado. And in 1998, UHH’s Eleazar Hernandez qualified for the national championship with a runner-up finish at the regional. (He got injured and didn’t attend the national championship.)
In 2001, Colleen Cassidy was the last Vulcan to narrowly miss the big stage. At the regional, she finished third, one spot back, of individual runners for the last spot to the national championship.
But even back then, the cross country program, a non-revenue sport, struggled with finances. Former coach Mike McFate’s runners didn’t compete at regular-season mainland meets.
“The men were still pretty good back then, but the scholarships went down way down every year,” said Guerpo, who coached Hernandez for a year. “By 1999, we didn’t have anything.”
The UHH women placed eighth at the PacWest championships in 2011 and 12th last year. No runners went to the regionals. But community support remains strong; 88 runners participated at the annual Vulcan benefit run in August.
From there, the Vulcans have placed second-to-last at the Chaminade Invitational, UH-Manoa meet, and Hawaii Pacific meet.
Megan Washburn, a freshman from Adams, N.Y., has been UHH's top finisher in each race. She is majoring in astronomy. She appears to be a good fit, not only for her desired major, but because she also adds depth.
Though the program lacks the running pedigree of years past, at least UHH has numbers, youth and several homegrown harriers. Like high school, seven runners race with the top five scores counted.
On the nine-runner roster, there are five local products: freshmen Kaylee Rapoza (Hilo High), Vandey Okinaka (Waiakea), Kaelynne Manoha (Kamehameha-Hawaii), sophomore Keri Fujiwara (Waipahu, Oahu) and junior Shelby Tanaka (Kaneohe, Oahu).
“Without scholarships, we’re not as talented and able to bring in girls who were top 10 in their league,” Guerpo said. “Instead of girls in the top tier, we’ve got the middle tier, but they’re working their way toward the top.
“Megan is goal-oriented. She’s quiet and I’m still trying to figure her out. But she’s a team player and when it’s race time if you give her a goal she goes after it. That’s the kind of girl she is. All our girls are goal-oriented. They remind me of the teams I had in 2006 and 2007.
“As long as we get community support, basically fundraising, we’ll be fine. I’m hoping to get more funding for scholarships to bring in one or two girls who can run out in front. That’s what everybody wants. But one good thing about our team is the top five are about 50 seconds apart. That helps us and encourages them to be close together as possible and keep pushing.
“The best thing is they’re together. They want to run. Those are the kind of kids I want. It’s nice to have a girl run in front. But until then I’ll work with the ones that I got.”
It’s UHH’s turn to host with a meet at 7:45 a.m. Saturday at the Volcano golf course with the women and then the men at 8:30 a.m. That meet will be followed by BYU-Hawaii’s Invitational, and the PacWest championships a week later.
One thing is pretty obvious: the Vulcans’ conference opponents are better than their nonconference foes. That’s seen in UHH’s record, 0-8 in the PacWest and 5-0 to start the season.
It will be something of an uphill challenge to stop that eight-match skid because the Vulcans (5-8, 0-8) host BYU-Hawaii (12-1, 7-1) at 7 p.m. Saturday at UHH Gym and the rest of the schedule resembles a meat grinder.
The Seasiders, who earlier swept UHH, have won the last two PacWest titles, and shared the crown with the Vulcans in 2010 in a conference that is growing tougher by the minute.
BYUH isn’t sitting in first place in the standings. That distinction belongs to undefeated Point Loma, which visits UHH next week. For the next seven matches, there are no soft spots on the schedule for the Vuls, who play either upper-bracket teams or foes that already beat them.
They host winless Holy Names at 3 p.m. Nov. 3.
The good news for UHH is that its two most productive players in points (kills, blocks, aces) are freshmen Marley Strand-Nicolaisen (3.97 points-per-set average) and Kyndra Trevino-Scott (3.32), two recruiting gems for coach Tino Reyes.
Like volleyball, the women’s team is out of the running for a postseason berth. There is no conference tournament to determine the PacWest champion, which earns a regional automatic qualifying spot.
And like volleyball, there hasn’t been a conference champion or regional automatic qualifier with three or more league losses. (Unlike UHH volleyball, the men and women soccer squads have never advanced to the postseason in the school’s eight-year history.)
The Vulcans (5-3-1) host Fresno Pacific (4-3-1, 2-1-1) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at the UHH baseball field.
UHH is coming off a 1-4 road trip. In the three losses, opponents averaged far more shots on goal, 9-2. In a 1-0 win over Dixie State, the Vulcans, who apparently played better defense, and Red Storm each fired five shots on goal.
Likewise, when opponents averaged more shots on goal, 7-4, the UHH men lost and went 0-3-1 on the road trip. The Vulcans tied Dixie State 3-3; they took eight shots on goal, one less than the Red Storm.
The Vulcans (3-4-1) host Fresno Pacific (6-2-1, 4-0) at 3 p.m. Saturday following the women’s match.
Unlike Reyes, director of soccer Lance Thompson may have to exert a bit of patience until his full imprint is on both programs.
The first-year coach has seven seniors and eight juniors on the women’s 23-player roster, and only five seniors and seven juniors on the men’s 24-player roster.