Track burner

First year coach Scott Abbott iteracts with Jeffery Paneda during stretches last Thursday.:

First year coach Scott Abbott iteracts with Jeffery Paneda during stretches last Thursday.:

Victor Nieto

Sacramento State cross country and track and field runner Jeffrey Paneda knew going into the February 2007 Big West Indoor Championships in Bozeman, Mont., was a long shot for him and was likely to not add many points to a team in desperate need of them.

Predicted to finish seventh in the 800-meter and with the Big Sky Championship nearly in the Hornets’ grasp, it was time for the then-junior to rise to the occasion.

Paneda started the two-lap race with a casual pace, staying near the pack for the first lap before turning it up to a higher gear. He started passing up his competition, who had yet to initiate a final burst of speed as he headed toward the finish line.

The look of fatigue started to show on his face and his body started to tire, but Paneda held his fervid pace, leaning his body over the finish line and coming to a tumultuous crash to the ground, finishing in third place.

“It kind of looked like he dove at the end, but it was a great race for (Paneda) and a big pick-up for us,” said Jose Garcia, former Sac State track and cross country runner. “We ended up winning by only a couple points (107.5 to 105.5- Weber State) and Jeff picked up seven points with that finish.”

Although Paneda’s most memorable athletic experience came from track and field, the slight statured and mild-mannered runner from Manteca has been translating his diligent work ethic and “long-distance sprinter” mentality to the field of cross country, and doing well so far in the process.

“I wasn’t even going to run cross country, but they kind of just threw me in there last year and see what I could do,” Paneda said, recalling his introduction to the cross country team. “Surprisingly I did well, so I kept at it.”

That success continues for Paneda during the 2007-08 season with top showings in nearly every event, including a first place Hornet showing in the Stanford Invitational and a 31st overall finish in a field consisting of more than 300 runners.

Paneda said showings such as these open his eyes to what he potentially can do and possibilities that may present themselves after he graduates in spring 2008.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen after spring. Right now it depends how well I run in track and if I want to continue to run after college. Who knows, hopefully I could get picked up by a club team,” he said.

Although the public relations major now looks at track and cross country in an optimistic light, the choice of pursuing his passion wasn’t always so overt.

“After high school, I took a year off of track altogether,” Paneda said. “I made some bad choices and I didn’t even know if I wanted to run again, but then I realized that I missed it. I realized that it kept structure in my life and I’m glad I came back.”

After taking a year-long break from track, Paneda enrolled at Modesto Junior College and participated in the track and cross country programs, eventually gaining the attention of Long Beach State University, Fullerton State University and Sac State.

“I chose Sac State because it was closer to home and I was familiar with the area. Plus, from what I saw and heard about the Sac State program, it was on its way up,” Paneda said.

Like the current situation of track and cross country teams, Paneda is thriving at Sac State, earning recognition for his performance on the field and earning all-academic honors last fall, and barely missing honors last spring.

“He’s just the best kid there is. He is so focused and knows what he wants. Track is just his major love,” said Paneda’s mother, Daisy Whitaker.

Paneda grew up in Manteca doing track events throughout his elementary and middle school years, but was drawn toward the more marquee sports of basketball and football in high school.

Whitaker recalls when her son was on the freshmen basketball team and the coaches tried to persuade him to go for track as well.

“He was just so quick on the fast break and with running up and down the court,” she said.”The coaches were really impressed.”

Although Paneda wanted to play football, he came to a realization that he could probably do better and go further in track and cross country. Each time his hard work produced successful results, Paneda started making a list of short and long term goals to accomplish – an idiosyncrasy that he still possess today.

“He’s very goal-oriented,” said Garcia, who is also Paneda’s roommate. “On his door he keeps a list of goals he hopes to accomplish and he works really hard on sticking to them.”

For right now, Paneda’s cross country goals are for his team to advance to the regional finals and qualify individually as a runner as well.

The next Sac State cross country meet will be Big Sky Championship on Saturday in Missoula, Mont.

Victor Nieto can be reached at [email protected]