Kaiya Brooks arrived at Crystal Springs Uplands with a fairly impressive resume.
Running on the track-and-field club circuit with the Peninsula Flyers, Brooks showed promise on the national stage by reaching the 2019 National Junior Olympics, taking seventh place in the 3,000 meters in the 13-14-year-old division last July in Sacramento.
“I knew she was a good runner,” Crystal Springs cross-country coach Albert Caruana said. “And during the summer she ran a couple of Junior Olympic races and her times were like — “Whoa! That’s pretty fast.” — but I had no idea how that was going to correlate to cross-country.”
Let’s put it this way. Throughout her freshman year at Crystal Springs, a fewer number of runners finished ahead of her on the cross-country circuit all season than on that single day at the National Junior Olympics.
A bolt from the blue, Brooks raced to both the West Bay Athletic League and the Central Coast Section Division V championships. She went on to reach the podium at the CIF Division V state meet by taking fourth place.
And now, the freshman phenom has been named the Daily Journal Girls’ Cross-Country Runner of the Year. Not that Brooks had any inclination she would be able to run at such a high level through her first year of high school.
“No, not really,” Brooks said. “Going into the season I wasn’t really expecting anything. I was just excited to see how it would go. … So, that was definitely a surprise.”
Brooks certainly has the lineage of a top-flight competitor. Her sister, Carlmont senior Kaimei Gescuk, earned 2018 Daily Journal Girls’ Cross-Country Runner of the Year honors.
The sisters have different styles on the course. The taller Gescuk uses long, powerful strides to create an advantage. Brooks, though — at just 5-1, 85 pounds — doesn’t have nearly the same approach.
Gescuk also has her pregame down to a science, as she is the consummate picture of prerace cool, according to Brooks, who tends to get amped up prior to races. Gescuk has long turned to music listening to achieve a prerace calm. She even put together a Spotify playlist for Brooks to help her get into the zone.
“Seeing how she copes with [nerves], it just made me look up to her more,” Brooks said. “She’s a really great role model to me.”
Not that the nerves are a factor once Brooks steps onto the course.
“That definitely goes away as soon as the gun starts,” Brooks said.
This much was clear pretty much from the outset of the season. In the first meet of her Crystal Springs career, Brooks settled for second place in the junior-varsity race at the Lowell Invite in Golden Gate Park, finishing a comfortable distance behind University-SF freshman Maya Mason.
Mason would be the last high school runner to finish ahead of Brooks until the state meet.
The freshman made quite a statement in the Crystal Springs’ West Bay Athletic League opener at WBAL No. 1. It was the only time all season she got to run against Menlo standout Charlotte Tomkinson, who missed most of the year due to injury.
Menlo still went on to a brilliant season, culminating in a WBAL girls’ team championship. Brooks, however, dominated the individual WBAL circuit, starting with that Oct. 10 league debut at Crystal Springs Cross-Country Course by taking first place with a time of 17 minutes, 56.8 seconds, topping Tomkinson (18:10) and Menlo senior Kyra Pretre (18:12.2).
“That was a pretty big surprise that she could run that fast, and that she could actually beat Kyra and Charlotte,” Caruana said.
It was a trend that continued into the WBAL Finals Nov. 8 at Crystal Springs, where Brooks etched another landslide victory. The freshman topped the podium with a time of 17:42.8, while Pretre took second place at 18:08.9.
The following week, at the CCS Division V championships at Crystal Springs Nov. 16, Brooks demonstrated more of the same. Her time in the Division V race was somewhat below her usual pace, yet she still won by plenty, in 18:07.6, ahead of second-place Tevah Gevelber of Castilleja at 18:55.
“I feel like I ran a decent race but it wasn’t my fastest race,” Brooks said.
It was still one of the top overall times of the day in the cumulative standings from all five divisions. Brooks ranked fifth overall, 12 seconds behind the top time by Presentation senior Gianna Mendoza, at 17:55.6, from Division II. She also had the second-best time among freshmen behind Lauren Soobrian of Los Altos, at 17:58.2, from Division I.
Brooks finally got the chance to chase some faster times during the state meet at Woodward Park in Fresno, where St. Helena junior Harper McClain “Brooks-ed” the Division V field with a first-place time of 17:13.4, bettering the second-place time by 45 seconds. Brooks took fourth place with a time of 18:11.1, though her strategic approach was to stay with the second tier of runners from the outset. Within that group, she dominated, finishing 20 seconds ahead of the fifth-place runner.
Brooks admitted she likely would have ran a better time had she chosen to chase the top tier.
“Yeah, I think so, because I remember in the last few minutes of the race I still had some energy left,” Brooks said. “So, I think if I would have had another mile, I would have caught up.”
Caruana, however, drew up the race plan. And Brooks was happy to execute it. This dynamic, Caruana said, is his freshman’s most valuable asset.
“I think probably her best asset is she’s very coachable and she listens,” Caruana said. “At the state meet, we knew who the top girls were and I said go out with the second group. … She listened to my race plan and did exactly what I told her to do and she ended up getting fourth in the state meet behind three really talented runners.”
And, yes, Brooks has three more years to climb that state ladder.
“Yeah, I’m really excited about next year,” Brooks said.