For starters, the two are both affiliated with the University of Los Angeles: O'Neil a senior at UCLA; Murakami a graduate for the Bruins.
Both athletes are two of the finest distance runners to ever blossom out of the Santa Clarita Valley, both setting a handful of valley records over the last 12 months, and both are your 2016 SCV Male and Female Runners of the Year on Brando's Blog this winter.
O'Neil and Murakami never disappointed, putting their hard work, persistance and talent on display on several different occasions in 2016.
O'Neil, a 2012 Hart High School graduate, won a close battle over Colombia University's Brian Zabilski, a former Saugus High runner who helped the United States earn gold during March's Pan-American Games and qualified for this November's NCAA Cross Country Championships, and Chris Low, a former Canyon standout who broke his own SCV record over 800 meters and won the two-lap event at the Stanford Invitational.
He wasn't just great; he was extradionary, breaking his own SCV record in the mile, clocking an unfathomable 4:00.19. That mark converts to 3:58.80 for 1,600 meters. He's now a whopping six seconds faster than the next fastest miler in valley history, Zabilski, and seven seconds faster than Rich Burns, a former SCV resident who held the SCV mile record for an impressive 40 years before O'Neil broke it in 2015. That accomplishment alone makes O'Neil a prime candidate for this year's award.
O'Neil wasn't done there though. In a bid to qualify for this year's U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, the runner dipped his hands in the 3,000-meter steeplechase for the first time in his life. In his second race over barriers, O'Neil clocked 8:36.60, breaking Luke Llamas' decade-year-old SCV record and just missing the United States Olympic Trials standard in the event.
His third SCV record came over 3,000 meters, where the Bruin blazed an 8:04.72 mark to smash Seth Totten's 8:14 record. Former Hart High School teammate Sam Peckham also broke the record, running 8:04.83 to just miss O'Neil's valley record.
O'Neil was spectacular at all distances, running 3:44 over 1,500 meters (his own 3:42.38 SCV record is the only mark faster in valley history) and 14:19 in the 5,000-meter event, No. 11 in SCV history. Three SCV records, a berth into the NCAA Division 1 Championships over 1,500 meters, and several other strong performances are more than enough to pick him as 2016 SCV Male Runner of the Year.
Meanwhile, Shannon Murakami, the greatest distance runner to come out of Saugus High School, continued to dazzle family, friends and fans, putting together a handful of historic performances around the oval that beat out Alysia Montaño, winner of the Brutes Hamilton and Prefontaine Invitational and the SCV leader over 800 meters (2:00), and former Saugus HS standout Karis Frankian, NAIA national champion over 5,000 meters, the national runner-up over 10,000 meters, and the third fastest 10K runner in SCV history.
Keep in mind Murakami's first SCV record came way back in May 2004, where she set the still-standing SCV high school sophomore record over 1,600 meters - an incredible 4:50.56 mark. Only Murakami, Stephanie Bulder and Shelly Hazlett have run faster in valley history, and no sophomore has come within four seconds of her record, the next fastest is Bulder's 4:54 dating back to 2008.
Murakami's first record-breaking performance in 2016 came at the Placerita Holiday 5K, where she broke her own course record, running the difficult course set up by Master's College in a remarkable time of 17:01. A week later, Murakami put on a clinic at the SCV All-Comers Meet at Canyon High School, where she took down Lauren Fleshman's 17-year-old Santa Clarita record of 10:18.21. That record now stands at 10:09.29.
She wasn't done though. Murakami ran a race for the ages at the Ben Brown Invitational, running away from the rest of the field to win in a huge personal best of 15:54.08, a time only Fleshman has run faster than. More impressive was how she did it, negative splitting her race in 5:08-5:04-4:59-35.8. She, then, returned less than 24 hours later to win the mile at the Oxy Distance Carnival in the third fastest 1,600-meter performance in SCV history. Only Lauren Fleshman (4:31.87) and Sheila Van Leeuwin (4:35.39) have run faster than Murakami's 4:40.34 PR.
The end of Murakami's 2016 season came to an erupt end after she suffered an injury to her Achilles tendon. She still walked away with two wins at the Rafer Johnson/Jackie Joyner-Kersey Invitational, taking the 1,500 in 4:17.67 (2:12 first 800m!) and running a personal best of 9:26.12 over 3,000 meters (4:53 first 1,600m!), which ranks No. 3 in valley history.
Her final 2016 success story came in a 3x800-meter workout in April, where she clocked 2:12-2:11-2:10. Only Alysia Montano (2:09), Jennifer Owen (2:08) and Bianca Tinoco (2:11) ran faster than 2:12 during the entirety of 2016. Murakami's SCV 3,200m, her remarkable 5K/Mile double in March, and an undefeated season make her an obvious choice for 2016 Female Runner of the Year.
Male Runner of the Year - Austin O'Neil, UCLA
O'Neil broke three SCV records over 1,600/mile, 3K and the 3K steeplechase, just missing the U.S. Olympic Trials standard over barriers. He also clocked the 11th fastest 5,000-meter time in Santa Clarita history, showing great range with his 14:19 personal best. O'Neil now holds SCV records in the 1,500m, 1600m/Mile, 3,000m and 3,000m steeplechase. Those four records make him arguably the greatest SCV male distance runner around the oval.
[Edit: O'Neil broke his own SCV record over 3,000 meters, clocking 8:04.02 on Feb. 11, 2017]
Female Runner of the Year - Shannon Murakami, Saugus Track Club
Murakami set another SCV record, a mark that came 11 years after she set her first one - the SCV high school sophomore 1,600m record. The former Saugus HS standout took down Lauren Fleshman's 17-year-old record, set the Placerita Holiday 5K course record, while winning all six races she entered and setting personal bests in the 1,600/mile, 3K and 5K. Murakami also ran 40:06 up the Beast, No. 2 all-time behind Samantha Ortega.
Boys HS Runner of the Year - Ryan Tate, Saugus High School
Saugus' Tate was light-years ahead of the next best Foothill League runner, winning the league championship over 3,200 meters - Saugus' sixth consecutive crown over the eight lap event - and clocking 9:04.60, No. 3 in SCV history. He also just missed Scott Schweitzer's 45-year-old league championship record by five ticks. The crowning achievement of Tate's career came a month later, where he became the first distance runner to win SCV Male Athlete of the Year.
Castillo was absolutely spectacular from start to finish, winning her first Foothill League individual championship over 1,600 meters and finishing fourth in the 3,200-meter event. It was her junior cross country campaign that turned heads, though, where she went undefeated through the end of October, shattered Rebecca Mehra's two-mile record at Palos Verdes and, in the biggest race of her career, finished fourth at the state championships. It's hard to imagine her 17:34 5K performance at Woodward Park - tied for No. 2 in SCV history with the great Kaylin Mahoney - a disappointment, as the Saugus legend REALLY wants an individual state crown and Samantha Ortega's 17:26 SCV record at Woodward Park in 2017...
Newcomer of the Year - Hailey Kirsch, Valencia High School
Kirsch (pictured above) was dynamite over her her freshman cross country season, finishing a courageous third behind the Saugus duo of Mariah Castillo and Kaylee Thompson at last fall's Foothill League Championships. She also qualified for the CIF Southern Section Division 1 Championships. Can she join Kaylin Mahoney (10:25), Karis Frankian (10:41), Heather Scobie (10:44), Mariah Castillo (10:48) and Lauren Fleshman (10:58) as the only Foothill League freshmen to run under 11 minutes over 3,200 meters this spring?
Comeback of the Year - Sabrina Janes, UC Santa Barbara
Janes' running career has been one plagued with injuries since she shocked the world and won the 2013 CIF Southern Section Masters title over 800 meters, one week after she and another competitor took a hard fall in the last 200 meters of the CIF Southern Section Divison 2 Finals. Both were reinstated, allowing Janes to win the Masters crown and set the still-standing SCV high school sophomore record in the event...Her senior track season saw her limp to the finish in last place at the CIF Southern Section Division 2 Finals, which is why fans were overjoyed to see the UC Santa Barbara athlete run 2:13.92, No. 6 on the 2016 SCV Track Bests list, and 4:35.00, the equivalent of a 4:55.21 1,600m. Ironically, her all-time 1,600m best is 4:55.21.
Race of the Year - Shannon Murakami, Saugus Track Club, 15:54.08 5K
Murakami ran a race for the ages at the Ben Brown Invitational, running away from the rest of the field to win in a huge personal best of 15:54.08, a time only Fleshman has run faster than. More impressive was how she did it, negative splitting her race in 5:08-5:04-4:59-35.8. Absolutely incredible!
Gutsy Performance of the Year - Jason Hillquist, COC, CCCAA Track Finals
There's a lot of athletes who deserve consideration for this award, but none of them showed the guts Hillquist did in winning the CCCAA state championship in the 3,000-meter steeplechase last year. Hillquist, now running for Cal State University, Fullerton, ran a courageous race to win his first and only state crown ON A BROKEN TOE. His 9:16.04 win also marked the second consecutive year College of the Canyons had a winner in the event following Ethan Walker's 2015 triumph and now ranks No. 6 in Santa Clarita Valley history.
Surprise of the Year - Victoria Hodge, Saugus High School, 45:53 Beast
Hodge's 45:53 ranks No. 10 in SCV history behind nine of the greatest SCV runners (Samantha Ortega, Shannon Murakami, Jenay Jauregui, Brianna Jauregui, Karis Frankian, Mariah Castillo, Annie Randall, Amber Murakami and Ashley Heys). Her personal bests of 5:16 and 11:42 are light-years behind the rest of the all-time list (the slowest PR's of the nine stand at 5:14 and 10:51), but she gutted out the biggest surprise of 2016 last summer.
Most Inspirational of the Year - Karis Frankian, Master's College
Frankian's 5K win at last May's NAIA National Championships was an important one for a two reasons. For starters, it proved the quote, "you get out what you put into it." Frankian, who had never won any kind of championship beyond her two Foothill League individual titles over a span of eight years, saw herself become the first female athlete in Master's College history to win an NAIA crown. It also proved another quote, "persistence changed failure into extraordinary achievement (Frankian finished second in the 5K finals less than 48 hours before her 10K national championship. saw her solidify her place as one of the top five greatest (or decorated) female distance runners in SCV history. In my opinion, Lauren Fleshman, Alysia Montaño, Shannon Murakami, Stephanie Bulder and Frankian are those five when it comes to cross country AND track.
Record of the Year - Austin O'Neil, UCLA, 8:36.60 3K steeplechase
In all honesty, O'Neil racing a 3K steeplechase was something I never thought I'd see, but he did it was such poise. I'm not surprised by O'Neil's Santa Clarita Valley record of 8:36.60, which broke Luke Llamas of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo's 10-year-old record in the event last year.
News of the Year - Alysia Montaño, Asics, U.S. Olympic 800m Trials
Montaño's heartbreaking 2016 didn't start with her fall in the last 150 meters of the United States Olympic 800m Trials. It began a month earlier, when she found out Russian Maria Savinova was banned from the sport, which gave her two IAAF World Championship bronze medals, and a possible bronze medal from the 2012 London Olympic Games. Even more disturbing is how she'll never get those moments back after the Russian scandal. Her fall came a month later and was one the hardest things I've ever watched. Montaño, a multiple-time national champion and 1:57 performer (the SCV record!) tripped over World Championship bronze medalist Brenda Martinez and took a hard fall in what may have been her final shot at another Olympics.
2016 All-SCV Male First Team
Falco DiGiallonardo, Chico State
Jason Hillquist, College of the Canyons
Chris Low, Unattached
Austin O'Neil, UCLA
Sam Peckham, U.S. Naval Academy
Ryan Tate, Saugus High School
Brian Zabilski, Colombia University
2016 All-SCV Male Second Team
Jack Arnold, West Ranch High School
Johnathan Bay, Golden Valley High School
Skyler Mikesell, Master's College
Andrew Orona, Master's College
Preston Pope, West Ranch High School
Josh Sherfey, Master's College
Sam Willis, University of Arizona
2016 All-SCV Male Third Team
Boon Andrews, Saugus High School
Joel Estrada, College of the Canyons
Caleb McClain, University of San Francisco
Rodrigo Ornelas, Unattached
Justin Sherfey, West Ranch High School
Seth Totten, Unattached
Ethan Walker, College of the Canyons
2016 All-SCV Female First Team
Mariah Castillo, Saugus High School
Abigail Frankian, Master's College
Karis Frankian, Master's College
Alysia Montaño, Asics
Shannon Murakami, Saugus Track Club
Jennifer Owen, Arizona State University
Chelsey Albertson, Arizona State University
2016 All-SCV Female Second Team
Ashley Heys, Saugus High School
Natalie Rodriguez, Cal State San Marcos
Samantha Ortega, Arizona State University
Kaylee Thompson, Saugus High School
Bianca Tinoco, Golden Valley High School
Weslie Pearce, UC Riverside
Grace Graham-Zamudio, Sketchers
2016 All-SCV Male Third Team
Kyla Danforth, Seattle University
Mikala Fairchild, Master's College
Sabrina Janes, UC Santa Barbara
Hailey Kirsch, Valencia High School
Mackenna Park, Saugus High School
Bailey Pate, West Ranch High School
Jessica Ruiz, College of the Canyons