Carlmont has never been short on cross-country talent.
Take 2009, for instance, when the Scots swept Daily Journal Cross-Country Runner of the Year honors with Jessie Petersen earning the girls’ award, and Benjamin Heck taking the boys’.
Since then, the Scots had earned the title three more times, but not twice in the same season — until this one.
On the heels of schoolmate Kaimei Gescuk taking the girls’ top honor, Carlmont senior Justin Hsu ran down the sweep in being named Daily Journal Boys’ Cross-Country Athlete of the Year.
“We’ve been fortunate to have a good crop of kids,” Carlmont head coach John Lilygren said. “The boys’ program has been pretty strong the past three or four years, and Justin has kind of improved each year. He’s obviously our leader right now.”
Carlmont had high expectations for the third-year varsity runner early in the season after he emerged in the Stanford Invitational. Hsu took third place in the Division I race Sept. 29 with a time of 15 minutes, 54.7 seconds. He finished just one-tenth of a second off the second-place finisher and, perhaps more importantly, notched the top time of all runners in the race from Northern California.
It was a fitting breakout performance for Hsu, who made his varsity debut at the Stanford Invitational two years ago as a sophomore. New to the world of cross-country running in that 2016 season, Hsu — for lack of better phrasing — was just happy to be there.
After finishing 61st in 2016 among Central Coast Section runners — during a race spent marveling at how fast and well-conditioned the vast field in front of him was — he questioned if he even wanted to continue with competitive cross-country running.
“It caught me by surprise how much commitment you have to put into running,” Hsu said.
Stick-to-itiveness served Hsu well.
As a senior this year, he fulfilled his promise after his fast start at Stanford. He opened the postseason by claiming the Peninsula Athletic League individual boys’ championship Nov. 3 at Crystal Springs, taking the title in a time of 15:57, and was the only runner on the 2.95-mile course that day to run a time in the 15-minute range. It also fronted a team championship for the Gentleman Scots.
Hsu followed that up by reaching the podium at the CCS championships Nov. 18 at Toro Park in Salinas. His time of 15:55.7 was good for fourth place in the Division I race.
His performance in Salinas turned into a duel for fourth place. While the front pack ran away with the race — Palo Alto’s Henry Saul, Bellarmine’s Colin Peattie and Los Altos’ Owen Mackenzie finished top three, respectively — Hsu found himself battling Bellarmine senior Ross D’Orfani at the front of the secondary pack.
“During the last 100, we were within one step of each other and I was thinking I could actually lose this,” Hsu said. “But by the time we finished I was ahead of him by a couple seconds.”
While the Carlmont boys’ team missed advancing to the state championships, Hsu made the cut individually. And there, Nov. 24 at Woodward Park in Fresno, the senior motored to a 41st-place time of 15:49.8 in the Division I race.
In doing so, he joined an elite fraternity of Carlmont runners, recording the fifth-fastest time on the course in program history, behind Kyle Shackleton (15:26, 2003); Daniel Bereket (15:28, 2012); Brad Surh (15:37, 2007); and Drew Shackleton (15:39, 2003).
This marked Hsu’s second trip to the state championships. In 2017, Carlmont was led by then-senior Ryan Wilson for most of the season. When Wilson fell ill come the CCS championships, he still managed to take 10th place in the Division I race. But Hsu stepped up and surpassed his mentor for the first time in his career, reaching the podium with a sixth-place finish.
“Justin, I’d have to say as a distance runner, Ryan beat him in cross-country, but it’s amazing to see in workouts and things Justin was really a beast and really strong,” Lilygren said.
As for the team finish, Carlmont missed advancing to Fresno by one place both years. In 2017, the team took third at CCS, with just the top two teams advancing to the state meet. This year, CCS received three team bids to the state championships. The Scots, however, settled for fourth place.
This was still quite an accomplishment in 2018, after three of the Scots’ top runners — Wilson, Ty Marshall and Amaury Avat — were seniors last season.
“On the boys’ side, honestly, last year we were losing so many good runners, so many seniors,” Hsu said. “So we didn’t know if we were actually going to perform well.”
Hsu took up the mantle for Wilson and led a less experienced team back to the same standing. The two may have even more in common come next season. Wilson is a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Hsu has applied to MIT, and expects to receive word regarding his admittance to the prestigious academic school by April.
As for his drive in the wake of Wilson’s graduation, Hsu was intent on leading by example. His resume, in this respect, speaks for itself.
“I wanted to be like a team leader,” Hsu said, “and didn’t want to let my team down.”