Sierra Castaneda never wanted to be a cross country runner.
The West Morris junior was once content just being a member of two swim teams: her club team and the high school squad. Castaneda loved being in the pool.
In fact, she still does.
“I didn’t think cross country would be my thing,” said Castaneda, the 2014 All Daily Record Cross Country Runner of the Year.
“I ran track in middle school and for a Long Valley town team, but I didn’t think I could do it in high school because I thought I would be overwhelmed with swimming. Running was something I just did on the side.”
But running is in her blood. Castaneda’s mother, the former Denise Good, had held the West Morris record in the 440-yard run, graduating in 1977.
“She was a pretty good runner in those days,” Castaneda said of her mother. “She had a bunch of school records. I guess I inherited that.”
Castaneda was going to concentrate on swimming and nothing else. But in the spring of Castaneda’s freshman year at West Morris, she decided to join the track team, competing in the 800 and 1,600 meters.
West Morris coach Jay Herrigel had put the idea of cross country in Castaneda’s head. Herrigel didn’t know that he was about to create a cross country demon.
“I knew that she had a lot of talent and I knew that she was right on the tails of Kylene (Cochrane) and Brennan (Sharkey, two recently graduated West Morris running standouts),” Herrigel said. “I knew that if I could get her, she would go into the summer, work hard and come into her own.”
Castaneda did just that as a sophomore, joining forces with Cochrane and Sharkey as some of the best runners in the county. Castaneda enjoyed a solid season, finishing fourth at the Morris County championships, third at the NJSIAA North 2 Group III race, sixth at overall Group III, and 10th at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions.
“They were always ahead of me on trails, so they were always girls who I emulated,” Castaneda said. “Of course, I wanted to beat them. I’m just a competitor. But I wanted to be like them. I had them on such a high pedestal.”
That was just a precursor to what would transpire this year.
Castaneda started her season at the Randolph Invitational, where she won the Varsity B race in 18:43.64.
“It was the first time that I ever won a high school race,” Castaneda said. “That gave me the drive I needed for the rest of the season.”
From that point on, all Castaneda did was win race after race.
On Oct. 21, Castaneda won the Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference Large-Schools race in 18:44.53. A week later, Castaneda became the first West Morris girl to win the Morris County championship (18:29.76) since Sarah Spilman in 2000. She continued on and won the NJSIAA North 2 Group III gold medal in 18:21.08, then won the overall Group III title in 18:21.48.
It was one impressive win after another.
“I definitely did not expect any of that,” Castaneda said. “I was amazed to do it.”
Added Herrigel, “She was unbelievable. She was running strong going into the season. I didn’t want her to blow every race out of the water. I just wanted her to ease into it a little, get the feel of the season. But she just took off. You could see her improve with every race.”
Castaneda managed to finish fifth overall at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions in 18:34.86. In the process, Castaneda punched her ticket to Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Oregon, where she finished 30th overall in 18:13.
For someone who never ran cross country before 15 months ago, the transformation into a dominant champion has been truly remarkable.
“I really had modest goals for the season,” Castaneda said. “I wanted to win the sectional meet, because I was third last year behind Mackenzie (Barry of Mendham) and Brennan and they both graduated. I wanted to break 18 minutes, which I didn’t do. And I wanted to do better in the Meet of Champions. … I still can’t believe it all happened. I definitely think placing last year at the Meet of Champions really inspired me, made me hungry to come back for this year.”
Added Herrigel, “She just loves running and loves the competition. She’s like my humble little superstar. She’s always smiling and happy. I never expected this to happen for her. I’m so happy for her and obviously we’re glad to have her. Her attitude is unbelievable. She is a very humble girl who is always looking for the next step. She just wants to improve.”
Castaneda is currently ranked No. 2 academically in West Morris’ junior class, with a rated grade point average of 4.1, and seems likely to commit to a major college program. Maybe that’s the reason why Castaneda is always smiling when she hits the finish line. Most runners are grimacing from pain and fatigue, while Castaneda is flashing those incredibly pearly whites as she comes home.
“My dad told me that I shouldn’t be smiling, because it looks like I’m too happy,” Castaneda said. “But I am.”
She knows now that her future is in running, not in the pool, even after she won both the 200-meter individual medley and the 400-meter freestyle in the Wolfpack’s first meet early last week.
“My parents have put that idea into my head,” Castaneda said. “I think I already had that in mind. But my parents let me know that I’m not going to college any way else but running.”
As parents, Denise and Alex Castaneda know best. For now, Sierra Castaneda has an outdoor track season to prepare for, not to mention another campaign of cross country in 2015.
“I’m already looking forward to it,” Castaneda said of next year. “I can’t wait.”