Young Gulls ready to fly for new coach

Gary Henley/The Daily Astorian Rafi Sibony is running faster and stronger, as the two-sport athlete in the fall enters his senior season.

For the first time in nearly 40 years, the Seaside cross country program will enter a season with a new head coach.

Neil Branson coached cross country for 39 years, including 37 as an assistant and head coach at Seaside, before retiring at the end of last season.

And he didn’t just fade down the backstretch — Branson went out with very competitive teams the last two years, including a state championship for the Seaside boys in 2015, and a runner-up finish in ‘16.

But Branson’s gone, along with many of those runners.

Frank Januik is the new guy in charge, with a lot of young, new “charges” under him.

Of Seaside’s 10 runners on the boys’ side, four are freshmen, with one sophomore, four juniors and one senior.

The numbers are just plain thin on the girls’ side, with only three runners as of this week.

It will take time, said Januik, who was serving as Branson’s assistant right up until his final year.

“We lost a lot of kids,” he said. “Two-thirds of our team last year were seniors. Our boys were great, and Josie Smith was a great runner for the girls. And of course, Neil was there for a long time and did a really good job. So it’s different.”

Branson is still in charge of the big 3-Course Challenge Meet, Sept. 23 at Camp Rilea.

The coaching duties at Seaside will fall to Januik and his assistant, Matt Spear, a successful marathon runner.

“He’s a current runner,” Januik said. “Last year at the 20-mile mark of the Portland Marathon, he was in third place overall. He can run, and he’s been a big help to the kids.”

The lone senior for the Gulls is Rafi Sibony, the last holdover from the 2015 state championship team.

“Matt and Rafi have run a lot together,” Januik said, “and Rafi is probably in the best shape he’s ever been. He’s ready to get after it this year.”

After that, the team gets young, in a hurry.

The juniors are Alex Barnett, Mathew Carpenter, Sam Henderson and David Schwinof. Cameron Lippert is the lone sophomore, with incoming freshmen Sean Barnett, Jude Gomez, Beau Johnson and Francisco Rojas.

The going will be tough for the freshmen boys, “until they get bigger and stronger,” Januik said. “There’s a big difference between their freshman and senior years. That’s what everyone will see in Rafi this year.”

On the girls’ side, Seaside has junior Ana Rojas, sophomore Hayley Rollins and freshman Angelina Alcala.

In a bit of a change, there’s only one athlete (Sibony) running cross country and also playing soccer this fall.

“That was huge for us,” said Januik, whose son Jackson was a two-sport athlete in the fall. “Both years for the last two years, five of our seven runners were soccer players. And they were soccer players who were junior and seniors — that makes for strong runners, and that’s what we don’t have this year.”