The day Kennie Arriola Jr. waited a year for finally arrived Sunday, May 21.
The annual Parochial Athletic League track meet returned to Saddleback College in Mission Viejo and offered students from about 30 faith-based grade schools throughout Orange County an opportunity to run, jump and throw in the spirit of fun, school pride and competition.
“I look forward to this meet,” said Arriola, an eighth grader at St. Edward in Dana Point. “A lot of people come together to run and share our talents and to compete and have fun. It’s a great place to do that.”
Arriola especially enjoys the boys mile, one of the first races on the schedule. The future JSerra freshman won the 1,600-meter run for a fourth consecutive year, taking the 8th-grade title in 4 minutes, 58.81 seconds, the fastest time of the meet.
Amelia Kang, a seventh grader at St. Mary’s in Aliso Viejo and a USA Track and Field national champion, captured the girls mile for her grade, stopping the clock in 5:34.50 for the fastest girls time of the meet.
Arriola and Kang were among numerous standout performers at the meet, which offers events from the sprints and long jump to the softball throw. Marcus Lansing of St. John’s Episcopal in Rancho Santa Margarita, for example, set a meet record for the 7th-grade long jump with an effort of just over 17 feet.
But the two-day meet is about more than just records. School spirit and camaraderie among an estimated 1,800 students builds through the team competition.
Schools are divided into large and small divisions based on enrollment. The meet keeps score for elementary teams or grades first through fourth, who competed on May 20. The junior high athletes, grades fifth through eighth, followed May 21.
St. Edward claimed the elementary division for the large schools while St. Mary’s secured the junior high crown for the large schools. St. Mary’s also took the combined team title, which added points from the elementary and junior high divisions.
In the small school division, Aliso Viejo Christian finished first in the elementary class while Blessed Sacrament in Westminster grabbed top honors for the junior high. Blessed Sacrament also won the combined title, it believes for the first time in school history.
“It’s pretty exciting,” said Will Bryant, Blessed Sacrament’s coach, who was assisted by Hieu Dang and Gerise Reaves. “We’ve put a lot of hard work into it, especially on the part of our coaches, who are very dedicated.”
School spirit is easy to spot at the meet. Students wear shirts representing their school and retreat to colorful shade awnings that display the names of their school.
Founding meet director Russ Smith of Sts. Simon and Jude in Huntington Beach fondly remembers the reaction Our Lady Queen of Angels principal Eileen Ryan had to the awnings.
“She said, ‘We don’t have anything else like this in the Diocese (of Orange), where you can just stand there and go, ‘Oh, my, gosh. There’s St. Barbara, Blessed Sacrament, Simon and Jude,’” said Smith, the PAL director and athletic director at Sts. Simon and Jude.
“It’s cool. It’s like a big festival for all our schools, a great way for everybody to get out there and represent themselves.”
The PAL track meet dates back to 2001 and has grown under Smith from a one-day meet into a weekend affair. But the meet has remained true to its principals of focusing on fun with competition and equality.
The meet, for instance, doesn’t allow athletes to wear spikes and grants leniency with some rules. The event also has hosted students with disabilities.
“I love this meet,” Smith said. “It’s an invitation for the kids to just come and run, or jump or throw and just be as good as they can be. … We’re just out there to cheer on all these kids.”