A look at Cross Country’s future finishers
The cross country season wrapped up for all intents and purposes on Saturday at the State Cross Country Championships at Cave Creek Golf Course. Sure, many Arizona runners still have work to do at the Nike Southwest Regionals (and if they advance, Nike Cross Nationals) and the Footlocker West Region meet, but as far as state-wide competition goes, Saturday was it.
What stood out was the performance of the senior champions. In Division I, Cibola’s Bernie Montoya and Xavier’s Sarah Fakler each won for the third straight year, and in Division III, Saguaro’s Jake Wynn capped his senior season with his second-straight win. Seniors also were champions in the Division II boys race (Salpointe’s Andy Trouard), the Division III girls race (Tempe’s Diana Garcia) and the Division IV girls race (Scottsdale Christian’s Anna Long).
With the departure of those outstanding runners, that got us thinking about the future, and who will have a chance to replace those great champions. Based on Saturday’s results, here’s a look at who to watch for from this season’s junior, sophomore and freshman classes.
The heir-apparent to Montoya (and for that matter Wynn and two-time Division I runner-up Ryan Silva of Rincon) is Corona del Sol’s Nate Rodriguez. After learning some hard lessons as a sophomore, Rodriguez matured as a racer this year and was near the front of every race, including Saturday’s championships where he was third in 15 minutes, 57 seconds.
Rodriguez won’t be without his challengers, and the biggest one may come from teammate Ryan Normand, who was sixth in the Div. I meet in 16:10. The next best time from a junior was the 16:17 posted by Rio Rico’s Ben Noriega, who was fourth in Div. III. Division II runner-up Adrian Ortega of Vista Grande ran 16:19, Desert Vista’s Jacob Walimaa posted a 16:22 and Mountain Ridge’s Nick Dale a 16:23.
The fastest time posted by an underclassman on Saturday was the 18:55 that Flagstaff’s Tatiana Gillick ran on her way to winning the Division II title. Gillick will be back next year to try to win her third straight title. She will enter next year as the top girls runner in the state, but ending the year that way will take some work.
Chief among the contenders is Xavier’s Samantha Mattice and Mountain View’s Huston Jones, who placed 4th and 5th in Div. I, respectively.
Tyler Day of Mesquite burst on the scene last year with a 26th place finish in the Div. I meet. At this year’s meet, Day jumped up 16 places to 10th and dropped 30 seconds. If he continues his improvement, Day could challenge for the Div. I title as a junior.
Other strong sophomores include Rio Rico’s Oscar Amaya, who placed 7th in Div. III at 16:25 and Saguaro’s Alex Stevens, who was 14th in Div. III with a time of 16:40. Also, Cactus Shadows’ Keith Durkin earned a top-10 finish in Div. II (9th) with a time of 16:42.
The big unknown in the sophomore class is Marcus Wheeler, who ran at Hamilton last year but is currently enrolled at Chandler. If the year off doesn’t slow Wheeler down, look for him to be a top-10 finisher in Div. I.
After a year of being the No. 3 runner on her own team as a freshman, Desert Vista’s Dani Jones broke out front this year. She won the Doug Conley Invitational, beating Tempe’s Garcia, and also won her sectional race over Highland’s Kristi Rush. At the state meet, Jones didn’t have her best race, but still finished sixth with a time of 19:08. Look for Jones to bounce back next year even stronger and she could supplant Gillick as the top female in Arizona.
Chaparral’s Ali Kallner has beaten Jones this year and finished 8th in Div. I at 19:14. With more race experience under her belt, Kallner has the potential to be a top-tier runner.
Other sophomores to watch for next year are Canyon del Oro’s Bridgette Doucet and Mesquite’s Alice Jensen.
Typically, not much is expected from freshman boys, but there were a handful that emerged as important members of their squads. The top performer at the state meet was Perry’s Cade Burks, who was the only first-year boy to run the state course in under 17 minutes. Burks was 24th with a time of 16:50, and was 10 seconds clear of the next-best freshman, Desert Vista’s Xavier Esparza. At the sectional meet, Esparza was the Thunder’s top finisher and will be counted upon to be a leader next year for the defending champions.
In Div. I, the next freshman finisher was Highland’s Carlin Resendez, who was 69th at 17:36. Other first-year standouts on Saturday were Tuba City’s Albert Fuller, who was 23rd in Div. III at 17:07 and Pusch Ridge Christian’s Ben Cajero, who was 17th at 17:34.
This year there were two first-year runners who finished second in their respective championship races. The best performance came from Sierra Jarriel of Fountain Hills, who was second in Div. III with a time of 19:11. That time would have been good enough for 7th in Div. I, which shows just how talented Jarriel is. The other runner-up finish came from Ganado’s Nikesha Eagleman in the Div. IV meet. She ran a solid time of 19:20 and will be the small-school favorite in the coming years.
Xavier’s run of talented runners continued with Jane Miller, who was 14th in Div. I with a time of 19:22. Other freshman runners to keep an eye on are Corona del Sol’s Mason Swenson, Arcadia’s Megan Reniewicki and Desert Vista’s Emily Smith.