Kalaheo’s Ben Zerr, Mililani’s Zola O’Donnell win OIA cross country titles

Last week, Benjamin Zerr won the OIA Eastern Division boys title. On Saturday, the Kalaheo senior took the OIA title at Patsy Mink Central Oahu Regional Park. Paul Honda/phonda@staradvertiser.com.

The culture begins with pain, but endures with love.

Kalaheo captured its third consecutive girls team title on Saturday morning at the OIA cross country championships at Patsy Mink Central Oahu Regional Park.

“Every year, the kids are great, the parents are great. We’ve got good senior leaders creating a culture here,” said Kalaheo coach Peter Jay, now in his 10th season.


The boys team of Kalani, likewise, won a fourth OIA title in a row, including the last three under cross country coach Matt Sanders.

“We just tell them they have to fall in love with something. Getting better, winning, pushing themselves, their team, winning championships, whatever it is,” he said. “It doesn’t make the pain go away, but it gives them motivation to push through. That’s what we always tell them and it seems to work.”

In the girls’ individual competition, Zora O’Donnell of Mililani thrived on the hills and slopes of CORP en route to her first OIA crown. The junior finished the 5-kilometer route with a time of 20 minutes, 17 seconds.

“I feel very tired, but very happy because I worked so hard. Months and months, for years, I’ve been training,” she said.

Zora O’Donnell began running at Mililani Middle School and endured through the pandemic — and cancellation of the 2020-21 season – to earn her OIA cross country title on Saturday. Paul Honda/phonda@staradvertiser.com.

Mililani coach Nathan Aragaki has coached for more than 30 years.

“Zola’s been getting better every week. She surprises me every week. We’re happy with how she’s doing. She tries hard every day. Good attitude, solid runner. You can’t ask for more,” he said.

When the OIA last had a cross country season, O’Donnell was a freshman and placed second in the JV championships. The divisional championships were held at the same CORP course a week ago, but still has its challenges.

“It was a little slippery and the grass, it’s not really what we’re used to. We’re used to cement courses,” O’Donnell said. “By the second mile, I pushed it. I really wanted first. I wanted to prove to myself that all the training was worth it. Everything was good in the last mile, but my legs were killing me. The grass is really tough on your legs, I think.”


O’Donnell outdistanced runner-up Emily Naylor of Kalaheo, who was not at 100 percent after suffering a non-COVID illness during the week. Naylor still managed to post a time of 21:14, 27 seconds ahead of Roosevelt’s May Pham (21:41).

Kaylee Noda of Pearl City placed fourth (21:44) and Camryn Lauro of Kalaheo (21:46) rounded out the top five.

“These girls are really good. If I had started slowing down, they would totally catch me,” O’Donnell said. “I could hear someone say, ‘You got this, Zola!’ My team, they’re the most amazing, supportive people you’ll ever know. We’re all a big family.”

The Kalaheo girls cross country team, sparked by Emily Naylor, won its third consecutive OIA team title on Saturday. Paul Honda/phonda@staradvertiser.com.
Kalani, coached by Matt Sanders, won its third OIA boys cross country title in a row. Paul Honda/phonda@staradvertiser.com.

Kalaheo’s Benjamin Zerr bided his time and took over in the second mile en route to his first OIA title. The senior finished the course in 17:38 in somewhat humid conditions. The earlier girls race was significantly cooler at 72 degrees.

“It was nice to have the drizzle. It was definitely humid. Last week (at OIA Divisionals), I went out hard and tried to keep that. This race, I followed the next runner (Aiea’s Konner Jacang) for the first mile,” Zerr said. “Then I tried to pull away. At that downhill over there, I just sort of let it take me down and I kept up with that speed and pushed the (final) mile.”

In 2019, Zerr finished second in OIA and 23rd at states. His development, as well as his teammates, is built on the slopes of Kalaheo’s campus, situated on the Oneawa Hills of Windward Oahu.

“The hills on this course (at CORP) are really steep, so you have to power up them, and that takes a different groove than running on the flats. We’ve done a lot of hill training. When we do repeats around campus, that’s all hills. Like 800s, and half of it is up a hill,” Zerr said.

Coach Jay was happy for his senior.


“This is awesome for Ben. He’s been close a lot of times. He’s not afraid to challenge. He’s been challenging since freshman year. We pulled him up (from JV) and he challenged our top guy,” Jay said.

Jacang was runner-up at 18:02, followed by Dristen Canaday (18:12) and Matthew Frisbie (18:14) of Kalani. Robbey Navarro, a Mililani sophomore, placed fifth (18:16).

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