Dana Hills High School boys cross-country team at the Nike Cross Nationals competition. Photo courtesy of Dana Hills High School

Dolphins and star Evan Noonan stage miraculous CIF State Championship performances

By Greg Mellen

The Dana Hills boys cross country team had plenty of glittering moments on its way to five state titles.

The 2023 California State CIF Division III Boys Cross Country Championship victory was like no other. No team matched what this year’s Dolphins and star runner Evan Noonan pulled off in the 36th annual race at Woodward Park.

Noonan, backed by three solid senior runners — Jayden Hernandez, Logan Harris, and Garrett Woodruff — plus an emerging sophomore star in Oliver Hunter, and the tough love and hard training of Coach Craig Dunn, had a year for the ages.

Only a stumble in the Nike Cross Nationals took a bit of the luster off the historic season.

The Dolphins’ climb to the top wasn’t automatic, according to Dunn, a former Orange County Coach of the Year who returned to head coach after a two-year hiatus.

Although the Dolphins returned their four best runners from the 2022 state championships where they took third place, and added Hernandez, who had starred at Godinez High in Santa Ana, into the mix, they needed to step it up to make the jump.

“This team had a lot of growing to do. They weren’t prepared,” Dunn said. “July through September we spent hammering through what they had to do.” He added, “Not Evan, he was dialed in and getting the rest on board.”

Dana Hills High School boys cross-country team at the Nike Cross Nationals competition.
Photo courtesy of Dana Hills High School

“He sharpened up the team mentally,” Noonan said of Dunn. “He let them know what they were doing wouldn’t get them there.”

For his part, Noonan tried to show the way through intense work and preparation rather than being vocal.

“It’s hard to listen and be as committed,” he said. “I prefer leading by example.”

The breakthrough came, Dunn said, when Dana Hills beat all comers in the open division of the Clovis Invitational, and the Dolphins never looked back.

Setting the bar at State

At the biggest meet with the highest stakes (Nike is more of a postseason celebration) it all came together.

Consider these facts:

  • Not only did Noonan win his second consecutive individual CIF Division III title, but his time was the best of any runner in any division by more than 10 seconds.
  • The State championship was the first for Dana Hills since 2009, and was the 18th top-three finish in school history.
  • The team set an all-time best D-III team time of 76 minutes, 19 seconds.
  • The overall time was the sixth best by any team in any division.
  • It was also the best ever by an Orange County team. Earlier in the day, San Clemente set a county record in 76:28, which, however briefly, eclipsed the Dolphins’ time of 77:01 from 2015.
  • The Dolphins’ team score of 42 points was a second-best all-time team score.
  • Noonan’s personal record time of 14:35 is the all-time record in the division and eighth best in course history.
  • It was best-ever time by an Orange County runner, and third-best in the state all-time for a junior in any division.
  • Noonan shaved 29 seconds off his division-winning time last year, which was the third-best all time for a sophomore at 15:05.
  • The junior won the fourth individual title in school history. Jai Dawson took the state title in 2021 and Tyler Valdez in 2009.
  • Noonan is also the first back-to-back individual Division III champion since 2017-18.
  • Three Dolphins finished in the top 11 overall, all five scored runners in the top 18, and the entire team of seven in the top 70 in a field of 214 runners.
  • Hernandez, Harris and Woodruff finished sixth and 11th and 18th, state, respectively, in 15:13.7, 15:25.9, and 15:33.9. Seniors Joel Brda and Mike Ayala, who would be among the top five on most teams but did not figure in the scoring, took 38th and 71st, respectively.
  • Hunter was 15th in 15:29.8, a personal record that shaved more than 54 seconds off his freshman time.
Dana Hills High School boys cross-country team at the Nike Cross Nationals competition.
Photo courtesy of Dana Hills High School

The State meet followed a similar pattern to other races. Noonan got out quickly and, after sitting on the shoulder of Templeton senior and runner-up Joshua Bell for two miles, surged ahead to win by 17 seconds. Bell would wind up with the sixth best time of any runner in any division.

Noonan’s was among the better runs by anyone anywhere in the country this year, although terrain and weather make cross country races difficult to compare head to head.

Next year, Noonan has his sights set on the CIF State Championships record time of 14:24 set by German Fernandez in 2007.

“This is the best team in school history,” Dunn said. “Evan is the best runner in school history.”

Nike letdown

After the strength of the state performance, Noonan and the Dolphins were riding high going into Portland for the Nike Cross Nationals. Noonan had a legitimate shot at competing for the individual championship and the Dolphins hoped for a top-five team placing.

“We went there to try to win it with him,” Dunn said. However, the notorious Oregonian weather struck.

More than an inch of rain fell on the course the night before the race, turning the course into a muddy, treacherous loop, which included a massive puddle that runners had to navigate twice.

Dana Hills High School boys cross-country team after becoming 2023 CIF champions.
Photo courtesy of Dana Hills High School

Disaster struck early for Noonan, who fell three times, including once in the puddle when another runner slid and took him out.

Noonan said the spikes on the cleats he brought were too short for the conditions. After the falls he was often boxed in by other runners on narrow portions of the course and he never regained his form.

“He had to work his way through a large field. He did his best to get up there,” Dunn said.

“I lost to people never in a million years did I think would beat me,” Noonan said.

Noonan eventually took 45th overall in 15:51. He was sixth among California runners, all of whom he had outrun during the season. Dana Hills took 10th overall, second among California schools, with 267 points and a time of 81:32.

Dana Hills High School boys cross-country team at the Nike Cross Nationals competition.
Photo courtesy of Dana Hills High School

State standouts

While Mother Nature rained on the end of the run for Dana Point, she couldn’t wash out an otherwise miraculous season.

To win the state title, the Dolphins had to overtake defending state champion Oakdale High, which was no small task.  Although Oakdale graduated two of its top three runners from the previous year, they came back stronger than ever. Oakdale ran the best time in Sac Joaquin Section history, shaving more than a minute off their time from their title run from a year earlier. And still it wasn’t close, with Dana Hills winning by more than a minute.

The day after the team banquet, Dunn said the team would have about a week off before diving into the track season. And the Coach sees great things ahead, particularly for Noonan.

“I think great things are ahead for him in track and his last season of cross country,” Dunn said. “He’ll use what happened to him at Nationals as fuel. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Evan Noonan.”

NOTE: If the math is confusing, team points are based on the placings of runners among complete teams, although the overall field features individuals who are not part of full teams. As a result, a runner’s team score can be lower than overall finish.

Sharing is caring!