By Greg Mellen
When Jai Dawson packed up his running shoes and awards and headed off to UCLA in June, some thought Dana Hills’ residency among the elite of the state’s cross country teams had paused.
Until one youngster came roaring up from the back of the pack — sophomore Evan Noonan. Noonan won the 2022 CIF State Division III boys title in Fresno, giving the Dolphins back-to-back individual champions in the sport, and helping lift Dana Hills to third place as a team. That victory came on the heels of individual and team victories in the CIF Southern Section Division III meet and the South Coast Cross Country League finals.
Boys cross country coach Sandy Mesa and her staff saw potential in Noonan since he made the team as a freshman and established himself as a solid performer behind Dawson, but no one could have foretold this level of success, this quickly.
“As a staff, we saw the possibility was there,” Mesa said of expectations heading into the season, which were further boosted by the school dropping from Division II to the less hazardous Division III category. “He had a really good track season, so we knew coming in that he’d be one of our top guys.”
The third-place team finish marked the 15th time since 2001 that the Dolphins placed in the top five in their category. Noonan became the third individual champion for Dana Hills since the state race was started in 1987, joining Dawson and Tyler Valdes in 2008.
Noonan’s personal record winning time of 15 minutes, 4.7 seconds was also a school record in the event. That time was also the third best ever for a sophomore in the state meet, according to the Orange County Register, and the sixth-fastest time of the day across all divisions.
In Fresno, Noonan used his standard approach running among the lead group for the first mile. He then picked up the pace and pulled away in the final mile to win by 14 seconds.
Filling in the scoring and lifting Dana Hills into the top three were juniors Logan Harris, 42nd (16:19); and Garrett Woodruff, 47th (16:23); freshman Oliver Hunter, 48th (16:24); and senior Jack Jones, 57th (16:30).
A year earlier, Noonan finished nearly a full minute and a half off the pace set by Dawson in 100th as the Dolphins’ fifth scoring runner. The state title was Noonan’s fourth win of the season and helped him earn recognition from the Orange County Register as its Runner of the Year.
Noonan won the CIF-SS Division III championship in 15:03.7 and the South Coast League title in a personal-record time for three-miles of 14:21.4. Noonan also won the Mount SAC Invitational in October and took second at the Orange County Championships. After his state win, Noonan ran in the Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Oregon.
He was unable to repeat his efforts from the state and earlier meets, finishing in 15:47.1 for 46th place. Noonan got off to a slow start, running in 83rd after the first mile and never fully recovered. Although he picked off racers the rest of the way, including 21 spots in the last kilometer, the effort wasn’t enough to figure in the scoring. Aaron Sahlman, a senior from Newbury Park, won in 14:44.5.
Dana Hills builds on tradition
Noonan’s success continues a tradition of excellence at Dana Hills that crosses generations.
Two boys coaches have dominated the running scene for decades since the 1970s. Coach Tim Butler led the cross country program for 44 years, qualifying for the postseason for 36 consecutive years, winning 23 South Coast titles, seven Orange County titles, five CIF titles, and four Division I state titles.
Coach Craig Dunn followed and led the team to 18 South Coast League titles, 11 Orange County titles, 16 podium finishes at State, and nine National appearances.
Dunn is an alumnus of DHHS, and ran for Butler in the early 1990s. Nic Smith, coach of the Dana Hills girls team, continues the coaching tree after graduating from Dana Hills and running for Dunn in the early 2000s.
As head of the girls program, Smith says, “We do our part to uphold that culture.”
Mesa says she is the beneficiary of the tradition, rigor, and values instilled in the program by her predecessors.
“I’m fortunate they established this foundation,” she said. “The culture was there.”
Then there was the transition to Division III.
“The moment we went to Division III, that opened up opportunities from the get-go,” Mesa said. “We decided we’d go after it.”
While Noonan’s individual efforts led the way, Mesa credited the entire team.
“I think we had a very united effort. From early on we kept everyone strong and healthy,” Mesa said. “Last year, a lot of kids were hurt. This year we maintained our health throughout. We implemented a lot of cross training to build strength.”
Mesa said she is eager to see how Noonan carries his cross country success to the track.
“It will be great to see him in the mile and two-mile,” she said. “I know he has goals for the two-mile.”