The Saugus High girls cross country team has encountered few obstacles during its decade of dominance in the Foothill League, but the pursuit of an 11th consecutive title has produced its share of hurdles already for the Centurions.
As if replacing four runners from last year’s championship lineup wasn’t challenging enough, Saugus has also been forced to significantly adjust its training schedule with the school’s track under construction since the summer, in addition to dealing with some early season injuries.
With the return of junior Mariah Castillo and senior Kaylee Thompson, the Centurions still remain the favorite to extend their title streak, but several runners will be called on to step up in support of the veterans beginning today at Central Park in the league opener.
“As long as we have Mariah and Kaylee, it’s going to be hard for anyone in league to beat us, but right now we’re relying on a lot of runners who might have otherwise run JV, so we’ll see what we can do to put the team together,” said Saugus coach Rene Paragas, whose team continues to chase Canyon’s record of 12 consecutive girls titles from 1994-2005.
“Not having the track has been hurting us, and we’re out of rhythm because of it, but the most important thing is we just need to get healthy. We’ve been snake bit so far, but that just means that somebody else needs to step up and we’ve got to work harder in order to move forward.”
Golden Valley’s Bianca Tinoco ended Saugus’ run of 10 straight league individual champions last season, but following her graduation, Castillo and Thompson have the potential to sweep the top two spots at this year’s final.
Seniors Victoria Hodge, Jakee Victoria and Savannah Sehenuk, along with junior Abby Davis and sophomore Jacqueline Cascione will have to provide enough depth for Saugus’ frontrunners, especially with junior Mackenna Park looking to return later in the season when the Centurions seek a record 10th state title in 11 years.
“We need to be perfect in our timing and perfect in our race delivery if we want to put ourselves in position to make the podium (at section finals and state),” Paragas said. “It’s going to take everyone and everything we’ve got in order to do it again.”
Not since 2008-09 have the Wildcats placed second in league, but with Sara Soltani taking over the head coaching duties after guiding Golden Valley to a runner-up finish last season, there is optimism that West Ranch can return to the Division 2 prelims.
Soltani inherits a lineup that includes four sophomores and a freshman, but a group that is filled with potential.
“We’re young but that can’t be an excuse,” Soltani said. “It’s going to be a big challenge for them, but the hard work they’ve been putting in is paying off. They’ve embraced the training and they’re showings signs of improvement already.”
Sophomores Sophia Hoelzel and Shelbi Schauble lead the way for West Ranch, which welcomes the addition of freshman Abigail Welch. Sophomores Samantha Breitbach and Peyton Washington, junior Mauri Dobbs and senior Avery El-Farra provide the necessary depth for the Wildcats, who placed fourth last season.
“Hart is going to be difficult, but our girls can’t be underestimated,” Soltani said. “We ran faster than they did at Woodbridge, so that was a good sign.”
Following four consecutive sixth-place results, the Indians finished in the top half of the league for the first time since 2002 with last year’s third-place effort and Division 2 prelims berth.
The last time Hart took runner-up was in 2001, and the Indians have the potential to battle West Ranch to place second with the experience of seniors Anely Avila and Lupe Alanis, along with juniors Sophia Pearson, Lindsey Jacobsson, Lucy Yoshioka and Lilly Bollinger.
Sophomore Dhanya Rodrigo adds important depth for the Indians, who were edged by Golden Valley by two points at last year’s league championship meet.
The Grizzlies have placed second to Saugus three times in the past six seasons, but with the losses of Tinoco and third-place finisher Mykasia Simpkins, it will be challenging for Golden Valley to remain in the top half of the league.
Juniors Aylin Gonzalez and Madisyn Gudino and seniors Gabrielle Payre, Andrea Higgs and Kaitlyn Mundy give the Grizzlies the potential to return to the Division 2 prelims, but without the established frontrunners, Golden Valley will need to rely on a strong pack to secure back-to-back postseason berths.
Sophomore Victoria Coyle has the potential to develop into a consistent scorer for Golden Valley.
The Cowboys placed second in 2013-14, but didn’t qualify for the postseason last year following a fifth-place finish.
In order for Canyon to avoid missing the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since joining the Foothill League, senior Yee-Lynn Wong will need significant support from a group of young teammates following the graduation of Stephanie Martinez.
Wong is one of the league’s most improved runners, but the Cowboys must rely on the development of sophomores Marisa Rodriguez, Chloe Davidson and Paris Camacho, along with freshman Hanna King and senior Sandra Diaz in order to return to the Division 2 prelims.
The Vikings are looking to avoid back-to-back sixth-place finishes for the first time since 2004-05 and will look to freshman Hailey Kirsch to be the catalyst for the program’s turnaround.
Kirsch is supported by seniors Leah Yohannes, Kristen Tabia, Shannon Agnes and Justine Du, along with junior Kristen Walker and sophomore Marissa Marti, but Valencia will need to demonstrate significant improvement in order to return to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Walker finished fourth in the freshman/sophomore league final last year, but Valencia didn’t have an athlete place in the top 20 of the varsity championship race, a drought Kirsch is expected to end this season.