Running to the top of the Foothill League summit was an impressive achievement for the West Ranch High boys cross country team after a decade of chasing Saugus and Golden Valley.
But remaining the elite team in the Santa Clarita Valley won’t be easy for the Wildcats, even with the arrival of one of the league’s most dynamic coaches and a wealth of returning talent.
Sara Soltani, who guided Golden Valley girls cross country to a second-place finish last season and led the Grizzlies to three girls league track and field championships in four years, took over for Steve Welker, who moved to Tennessee after guiding West Ranch to its first title in program history.
Despite losing Tucker Welker and Ryan Painter to graduation, West Ranch is still the favorite to repeat, with Saugus looking to regain its championship after having its streak of a three in a row halted last year.
“I’ve made it clear to them that we’re not underestimating anybody, especially Saugus,” Soltani said. “I’ve watched their program closely and how hard their kids work and how tough they race, so we’re definitely not looking past them.”
Junior Preston Pope leads a loaded lineup for West Ranch, which finished second in 2013-14 after seven straight years of missing the postseason. Pope is supported by seniors Jack Arnold, Justin Sherfey Michael Haggenmiller and Jake Carver, along with juniors Bryce Fenenbock and Timothy Sterkel.
Sophomore Isaiah Seideman has already made huge strides for the Wildcats after placing 15th at last year’s freshman/sophomore league final.
“There are a lot of boys returning, but this is a totally different team because of how they’re training and because it took a while for everyone to get on board with our goals and what we could accomplish,” Soltani said. “They’re amazing young men, but it’s been a lot of confidence-building with them.”
West Ranch placed fifth in the sweepstakes race Saturday at the Woodbridge Classic in Norco, second among California teams behind only reigning national champion Great Oak. They’ll look to continue that momentum into today’s league opener at Central Park, with their ultimate goal of winning a Division 2 state title in November.
“I think Saturday was a big moment for them in believing they could do it,” Soltani said. “I always knew they had it in them, but I think they surprised themselves with how fast they were this early in the season. They’ve really embraced our pack-running approach and I hope that will be the difference for us.”
The Centurions possess one of the most underrated lineups in the state, but they know it will be a significant challenge to prevent West Ranch from repeating as league champion.
“It’s obvious they’re in really good shape right now,” Saugus head coach Rene Paragas said. “They have such a talented lineup, but we want to race them as many times as possible and hopefully we can put some pressure on them.”
Juniors Boon Andrews, a transfer from Geneva High in Illinois, and Juan Enciso lead Saugus, which has placed in the top two in league nine of the past 10 years.
Seniors C.J. Westenhofer and Luke Wilke, juniors Elijah Stepan, TJ Von Busch and Ethan Ross, along with sophomore Kobe Serrano give the Centurions the necessary depth to close the gap on West Ranch come the league final, following the graduation of champion Ryan Tate as well as sixth-place finisher Jacob Crosson.
“We’re a deep team. We don’t have a frontrunner like we did in recent years (with Brian Zabilski and Tate), but we’re a very competitive group,” Paragas said. “Right now we know West Ranch is the favorite, but we just want to see where we’re at and then continue to get better as the season progresses.”
With Soltani taking over at West Ranch, along with former coach Rob Evans moving to Crescenta Valley, Wes Hinson takes over the head coaching duties for the Grizzlies.
Golden Valley, which last won league in 2011, looks to secure another postseason berth after placing third last season. Despite the graduation of Johnathan Bay, the Grizzlies still possess the experience of seniors Jaime Calderon, Jacob Acosta, Ryan Stevens and Kevin Orozco.
Sophomore Daniel Rush, last year’s runner-up at the freshman/sophomore league final, provides valuable depth for Golden Valley, which rebounded from consecutive fifth-place league finishes to earn 15th at the CIF-Southern Section Division 2 championships.
Following three consecutive sixth-place finishes at the league championship meet, the Cowboys are seeking a return to the postseason and are relying heavily on a talented trio up front to lead them to the Division 2 prelims.
Sophomores Ethan Danforth, 11th at last year’s league final, and Andrew Mawhorter join junior Patrick King in leading Canyon, which hasn’t qualified for the prelims since 2010.
Canyon will need junior Jacob Velarde, sophomore Jason Watanabe, senior Cade Luongo and freshman Esteban Covarraibias to provide crucial support in order to challenge for a top-three league finish.
The Vikings boast one of the league’s most underrated talents in junior Britain Reynolds, but in order to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2013, Valencia must continue to develop its depth.
Seniors Spencer Makar and Matt Bibicoff, juniors Sebastian Holding and Tanay Suryavanshi, along with sophomore Gage Davenport have the Vikings seeking significant improvement from last year’s fifth-place finish.
Valencia hasn’t had an individual place in the top 10 at the league final in three years, with Reynolds looking to end that streak and advance to the Division 1 prelims.
The arrival of freshman Lawrence Luna has the Indians optimistic, but Hart might still be a year away from qualifying for the postseason.
The Indians finished fourth last year, but graduated Brandon Estrada, their top finisher with a ninth-place effort at the league championship meet.
Senior Garret Alcantara and sophomore David Flores join juniors Andrew Larochelle, Brandon Martinez and Greg Vance for Hart, which last reached the Division 2 prelims in 2014.