Not long after the state cross country championships had finished on Nov. 9, somewhere on U.S. 550 between Rio Rancho and Farmington, the members of the Piedra Vista boys squad hunkered down in the back of their team bus to see for themselves.
Earlier in the day, they had heard from a few first-hand observers that Piedra Vista senior Triston Charles had placed first in a super-tight finish with Clovis junior Jerrick Maldonado for the Class 5A state championship at Rio Rancho High. But Charles wasn’t declared the winner.
The problem? A chip malfunction, which led to Maldonado being named the champ, with Charles in second place.
Piedra Vista didn’t officially protest the race within the time allotted by rule – 10 minutes after the results are posted – leaving the Panthers with no recourse to challenge what had occurred.
“None of our coaches were in the stadium to watch the finish,” Piedra Vista coach Sampson Sage said. “When we came in, our boys were excited. They said Triston won.”
But Maldonado was the winner, or so the technology said. Dehydrated, Maldonado collapsed after finishing the race and was receiving medical attention when one of his teammates subbed for him atop the podium for the awards presentation minutes later.
This kick-started a very strange 48 hours in New Mexico cross country circles.
On the bus ride home, some Piedra Vista athletes found video online of the race. They saw it; Charles finished in front of Maldonado.
“I felt like I won,” Charles said, thinking back to the heat of the moment at the finish line, “but it was very close. When they announced that (Maldonado) had won, I didn’t really worry about it.”
Video replay is not used at state cross country to help determine final results. Media chased after Charles, Sage said, believing him to be the winner.
“His right foot was firmly on the mat (at the finish line), before the Clovis’ kid’s foot was down,” Sage said.
It looked like this would go down as an egregious, and embarrassing, mistake.
But two days later, in one of the most bizarre twists to any state postseason competition, and after coaches and athletes from both schools examined the video proof, Clovis’ Maldonado went to the New Mexico Activities Association and said he wanted to yield his first-place medal to Charles.
“On Sunday (after state), I called Jerrick,” Clovis coach Mark Bussen said. “Just to check on him. I asked him, ‘Have you seen video of the race?’ ”
Maldonado finally watched it.
“He said, ‘Coach, I’m not comfortable. I think Triston beat me.’ I said, it looked like that to me also. And he said, ‘I think I should have a second-place medal.’ ”
Maldonado forfeited his first-place medal, and Charles will be presented with it next month during a ceremony at Piedra Vista.
“It takes a lot to own up to that,” Charles said of Maldonado. “It’s not the way I expected to win it, but I’m pretty satisfied.”
There are other moving pieces to this story:
The NMAA has awarded a Compete With Class sportsmanship scholarship award to Maldonado. It is a $1,000 prize, through the NMAA Foundation, which Maldonado will be able to use toward college. Each school year, the NMAA awards eight such scholarships; this was the second handed out in 2019-20.
“It really is an act of sportsmanship beyond measure,” NMAA executive director Sally Marquez said. “It’s the most ‘Compete With Class’ thing that has happened.”
The Journal was unsuccessful in its attempt to interview Maldonado for this story.
The other part involves the company contracted to do the timing and scoring. ChampionChip of the Rockies has been doing New Mexico’s state cross country meet going back to the days it was at Red Rock State Park just outside Gallup.
Even as the results have been squared away for the 5A boys, there is a lingering issue: How did such an error happen in the first place?
“We are not sure,” Marquez said. “We do not know what happened.”
The actual final times for both runners have not yet been posted, Marquez said.
There are, she added, two computer chips for each runner, one on each shoe. But still, Charles was deemed to have placed second.
Although Marquez said there had never been any problems with timing or scoring before with ChampionChip of the Rockies, “we have released them from their contract for next year,” she said.
Marquez said it was Monday when Bussen called her on behalf of Maldonado regarding the video. There were multiple videos and photos, Marquez said.
Maldonado had a lead coming into the school’s football stadium, where the finish line was located. Charles closed in the final stretch.
“Triston caught him 2-3 yards before the line,” Bussen said. “It looked like Triston got him. … On the bus, I looked at the individual results, and it showed Jerrick winning by .58 seconds. I said, ‘There’s no way. That’s got to be wrong.’ ”
On Monday night, Marquez confirmed the mistake. By Tuesday morning, Charles was informed he is the state champion.
Although the NMAA was prepared to recognize Maldonado as the winner, his gesture to give back his medal got everyone off the hook.
“To act with integrity, to be able to do that … the maturity,” Sage marveled. “That’s great.”