Sara Soltani knows what it takes to build a championship program, having guided Golden Valley to three of the past four Foothill League girls track and field titles.
Now Soltani faces a new, and perhaps greater challenge, trying to lead West Ranch to its first league championship in her first season with the Wildcats after leaving Golden Valley in the offseason to teach and coach at the rival school.
MORE TRACK: Golden Valley’s Shyann Franklin calls the shots
“(West Ranch) had talent last year, but they went up against a dominant Golden Valley team that had a lot of experience,” said Soltani, who led the Grizzlies to last year’s title after losing to Saugus in 2015.
“They’ve never been in this position before, but neither has Valencia. It’s a matter of who is the most prepared for these types of situations, but they have to be willing to step up to the line and do it.”
Canyon, Golden Valley and Saugus have combined to win the past 21 league championships, but two new challengers have emerged this season in Valencia and West Ranch, both motivated to end their title droughts.
“We want to battle for both league titles this year,” said Valencia coach Jeff Gilkey, who is back in charge of the Vikings’ program after Kevin Berns accepted a coaching position at Saugus during the offseason.
“But if we get past West Ranch, then we have Canyon next week, so we’re going straight into the fire.”
With an improved distance corps and versatility throughout their lineup, if the Wildcats can remain healthy and develop throughout the season, they could finally realize their potential and capture a championship.
“I told them that I don’t want to compare them to Golden Valley, that I want them to have their own identity,” said Soltani. “It’s about growth and maturity, so hopefully they can put it all together.”
Senior Bailey Pate is supported by sophomores Sophia Hoezel and Shelbi Schauble, along with freshman Abigail Welch in an attempt to score valuable distance points.
Senior Adaugo Oguejiofor is one of the league’s most talented all-around athletes, with sophomore London Lewis — a Valencia transfer — supporting in the sprints, sophomore Natalie Ramirez anchoring the throws and freshman Allison Jacobs contributing in the high jump.
“Change is hard, so lucky for me, they’ve accepted that,” said Soltani. “They have to do it for each other and that’s why they are consistently motivating one another.”
Senior Cheyenne Cheshier has the potential to sweep the jumps in every meet, but also contribute in other areas for the Vikings, who have the versatility to challenge for the title if their younger athletes continue to perform at a high level.
“If I could put Cheyenne in seven events, I would. She’s going to score in whatever event we put her in,” said Gilkey. “She’s amazing and she can really lead this team.”
Senior Erin Rodriguez and juniors Jaliyah Berkley and Catelyn Edwards provide experience for a roster that has been bolstered by the additions of freshmen Hailey Kirsch and Aaliyah Burney Muhammad.
After winning six consecutive titles from 2006-11, the Centurions secured another championship in 2015, before Golden Valley reclaimed the crown last season.
In order to be in contention again, Saugus will need to improve in the sprints to complement its depth in the distance events, led by senior Kaylee Thompson and juniors Mariah Castillo, Jacqueline Cascione and Mackenna Park.
Senior hurdler Audrey Chiu and senior jumper Brooke Thompson will be valuable assets, along with junior pole vaulter Courtney Heys and sophomore thrower Kayla Medof.
Following 10 straight championships from 1996-2005, the Cowboys haven’t won since 2012, but could be in contention again if they can maximize the talents of senior Seanna Nalbandyan and receive consistent production from their athletes in the field events.
“I certainly think we can contend, but I definitely don’t think we’re the favorite,” said Canyon coach Paul Broneer, who is awaiting the return of several basketball players following their lengthy postseason run.
“We’ve got a strong group of sprinters and several athletes who are capable of helping us in the other events.”
Senior sprinters Keashon Foster, Brittany Young and Alyssa Aguilar are supported by Nalbandyan in the hurdles and Yee-Lynn Wong in the distance events.
Juniors Gabby Sanchez and Rachel Bowers give Canyon depth in the throws, with sophomore Krystal Enriquez looking to contribute in the pole vault and jumps.
Sophomore Shyann Franklin is the athlete with the most potential to excel at the state level with her talent in the shot put and discus, with seniors Me’Lani Brown and Norma Chavez also contributing in the throws, but the Grizzlies’ depth on the track took a significant hit following the graduation of Azaria Hill, Bianca Tinoco and Mykasia Simpkins, as well as junior Lonyaa Merriweather’s decision not to compete this season.
Seniors Chloe Mielke and Kiara Gunn, junior Jaliah Keller and freshman Isabel Santillon have been promising performers for Golden Valley, which recently lost throws coach Art Baldi to West Ranch.
Seniors Shannon Soto, Kendall Kuhlman and Hailey Moore, along with junior Jessica Tohill, have the potential to be impact performers at the league finals.
If juniors Jordan Taylor and Lara Hansen contribute again for the Indians, they will add valuable depth and experience to the roster.