Members of the Saugatuck cross country team are seen with Thomas Valles and Johnny Sameniego of “McFarland USA” fame. (Photo provided)

Indians meet runners who inspired movie ‘McFarland USA’

By: 
Jason Wesseldyk

Following the SAC cross country jamboree at Schoolcraft on Wednesday, Sept. 27, Saugatuck boys’ coach decided to get in a quick run with his young son.
He returned to find a strange sight.
“All of our kids were gathered around with my wife (Saugatuck girls’ coach Angelina Bauer) and they were taking team pictures,” Rick Bauer said. “It was kind of weird, because we usually don’t take pictures after every meet. It usually has to be something pretty big.”
As it turned out, this was something pretty big.
Thomas Valles and Johnny Sameniego—two of the runners who inspired the 2015 Disney movie “McFarland USA” starring Kevin Costner—had stopped to talk to the Indians.
“McFarland USA” tells the story of the boys’ cross country team from McFarland High School in California, a predominately Hispanic school that emerged as a cross country power under the guidance of coach Jim White.
“It was so surreal,” Rick Bauer said. “It would be like Michael Oher, the inspiration for the movie “The Blind Side,” showing up at a high school football game and starting to chat with the players on the sidelines. I was kind of in awe. It was one of the coolest experiences we’ve ever had as a program.”
The fact that Valles and Sameniego were at the meet came about by chance.
In Michigan for a speaking engagement, the pair had been at another cross country meet in the area. As they were driving back from that, they happened to see the meet going on in Schoolcraft and decided to stop and have a look.
“It was purely by chance,” Rick Bauer said. “They go all over the country to speak and they like to stop in at cross country meets when they can.”
The Indians gave Valles and Sameniego a good show.
Led by winner Thea Johnson (18:58), the Saugatuck girls occupied seven of the first six spots and finished with a perfect team score of 15. The Saugatuck boys got a winning effort from Nik Pettinga (16:59) and finished with a team score of 37 to easily beat out runner-up Watervliet (68).
“Thomas and Johnny were really impressed with the way our girls ran and wanted to come over and talk to them because of that,” Rick Bauer said.
Besides Johnson, scoring runners for the Saugatuck girls were Taylor Connor (second at 19:14), Natalie Martinson (third at 19:33), Kierstyn Stoin (fifth at 20:29) and Sophie McQueary (sixth at 20:39). Jillian Vera was seventh at 20:40.
For the Saugatuck boys, Max Sharnas (third at 17:27), Ray Bartlett (seventh at 18:03), Adam Martinson (ninth at 18:19) and Mason Harvath-Gerrans (20th at 18:40) followed Pettinga.

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