Cross Country Foothill League season preview

Valencia Vikings Joseph Pohot. Courtesy of Valencia Vikings cross country

By Ryan Menzie 

Signal Sports Writer  

Cross country season got under way for the Foothill League schools Friday with the Cool Breeze Invitational at the Rose Bowl, the first official meet for the teams since November 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Last season, all the schools in the area competed in one friendly meet and that was the end of their season. 

The teams of the Foothill League now have had a true offseason and will look to the upcoming season as their new chance to make the CIF playoffs. 

Hart High School 

Led by second-year head coach Darren James, the Hart High School Indians have set high expectations for themselves on the boys’ side, while the girls are in a rebuilding program with mostly new freshmen leading the way.  

Cross-country coaches Joel Estrada, left, of Valencia High School, and Darren James, of Hart High School, discuss the day’s races at Central Park in Saugus on Saturday, 030621. Dan Watson/The Signal

“We do a pretty robust goal setting, focusing on the process and we got a pretty structured system that we train under,” said James. “The message is consistency and focus on the process. The goal is where we want to end up but we don’t get there unless we focus on the right thing every single day.” 

James and the Indians are used to having robust goals and focusing on their structured system they have in place. The message is consistency and focus on the process, said James.  

The Indians are led by two of their seniors, Macy Stitzinger and Jaden Wiley. Stitzinger will be entering her second season on the team and has the mentality of knowing hard work pays off. Stitzinger’s final message to her team entering her last season is to work hard, stay consistent and enjoy the time while they still have it.  

“I’m looking forward to actually being able to race this year,” said Stitzinger. “We all have high expectations this year. We have a lot of hard-working people on the team and I’m looking forward to all the goals that we’ll meet this year.” 

Wiley enters his fourth season on the team. Wiley has been battling injuries from growing pains and stress reactions from running, but will now enter his first season where he feels fully healthy. Wiley has high expectations for himself and the team and expects them to compete at the CIF playoffs and further on.  

“Now that I’m healthy I think I can go toe to toe with anyone,” said Wiley. “We just have to keep doing the right things right. If we continue doing the right things, we will be successful.” 

Golden Valley High School 

Golden Valley Grizzlies head coach Wes Hinson enters his seventh year as head coach. Hinson admits the program was affected hard by COVID-19 as they are now in the rebuilding phase for their program.  

“We’re just looking to improve off of the last couple of years,” said Hinson. “We lost almost an entire team due to COVID, but we just have to keep improving daily as individuals. As a team we need to focus on the process and build confidence and set expectations to start with.” 

At the end of the day, Hinson just wants his team to trust in themselves and trust the process moving forward. Despite COVID-19 practically destroying the program, the team is ready to come out and compete and believes they have a shot at being one of the best teams in the league.  

The Grizzlies are led by seniors Jayden Bradbury and Andrew Sandoval, who have both been on the team all four years of high school. Bradbury believes her team is going to do very well this season and believes a lot of it has to do with how well Hinson has been training them this offseason.  

“I feel extremely excited. I feel fantastic for myself and the team,” said Bradbury. “Everybody has been training very well and coach has been doing a very good job with us. I’m expecting to go out and give it my all and I expect the team to do the same as well.” 

Sandoval has the same expectations as Bradbury, but he also understands how hard the competition in the Foothill League is. Sandoval expects his team to come out and compete and show they belong at the top of an already competitive league.  

“The guys are putting in work every day,” said Sandoval. “To get it every day they put in the work so I just want to see them improve and become better. I expect us to be very competitive.” 

Valencia High School 

Head coach Joel Estrada enters his first season as head coach being the youngest of the bunch at 25 years old. Estrada was an assistant coach for the past three seasons so is comfortable and aware of the system Valencia has been running the most recent seasons.  

“We’re coming off a year with a strong young team,” said Estrada. “The motivation comes from them. I try to get them excited regardless of how they’re feeling. To my kids, no matter how nervous or excited you feel, just get ready for this run.” 

The goal for the girls is to hit the third-place mark and move on, said Estrada. With key senior returner Sophie Price, Estrada is confident the girls can make a strong push for the CIF playoffs. 

Price, who enters her fourth year as a runner, believes their success will be coming from the 50-mile weeks of practice, which include hill workouts, speed workouts, tempo workouts and recovery workouts. 

“We don’t have many girls on the team right now, a solid seven or eight, but there’s a chance we can qualify for CIF,” said Price. “Our mentality is pretty positive. Everyone on the team is great. They all want to work hard, which we appreciate. I have really high hopes for us.”  

The high hopes are felt around the team, as Price and Estrada both have the same high expectations for the boys. The boys went to the CIF finals two years ago and are expected to go to state this year.  

The boys are led by four-year runner Joseph Pohot, who looks forward to a chance to compete in state and move up the CIF ranks as well. Pohot hopes to compete at the collegiate level and thinks his team needs to compete against the highest competition in order to propel him to the next level. 

“We’ve had some pretty tough training. A lot of high-mileage weeks,” said Pohot. “We’ve practically built a team from the ground up and it’s really exciting to see what we can do now when we’re in our prime. The team is passionate and energetic.” 

Saugus High School  

Head coach Kevin Berns enters his second season as head coach for the Saugus Centurions. Berns is up-front, and says COVID-19 has been a nightmare for his team. 

Saugus High School cross country coach Kevin Berns, left, leads the Saugus girls team to the starting line at Central Park in Saugus on Friday, 030521. Dan Watson/The Signal

“We’ve adjusted like all teams have adjusted,” said Berns. “When new rules come up, we have to follow them. We are an outdoor sport. We don’t necessarily have to wear a mask while we’re running. It’s been difficult.” 

Despite the struggles, the message Berns instills in his team is to persevere through all the tough times. The past two years have been tough with the pandemic, kids leaving and head coach Rene Paragas retiring from the program.  

Seniors Bella Duarte and Wesley Cunningham look to continue the standard that has been set this upcoming season for the Centurions.  

Canyon High School  

Cross country and track and field head coach George Velarde enters his 19th season as head coach and has instilled the same motto since he started: Players have got to stay healthy. The implications now are more serious than ever, of course, with the new COVID-19 protocols in place. 

“I confidently tell the kids, if you aren’t feeling good, stay home, don’t come to school and don’t come to practice,” said Velarde. “We can’t afford getting people sick. As long as we‘re healthy come October and November, we’re going to be alright.” 

Despite trying to keep players healthy, Velarde is also working on rebuilding his program after the big hit it took with COVID-19 and kids not being able to come out. The coaches have done a great job bringing kids out, said Velarde.  

For the runners, Jacob Brown and Cynthia Herrera plan to lead the way once again for the Cowboys. Velarde said Brown performed well last season and expects him to do much of the same again this season. Brown wants to have another good season with his team, especially since this is his last year of high school. 

“We had a lot of people injured this past season. We’re looking to do our best,” said Brown. “We just have to give it our all and have fun with it. The other athletes have a couple more years so I would just want to tell them to not get burned out too quickly and enjoy the time you have.” 

Herrera is the young star in the making for the Cowboys, competing in the CIF preliminaries as a freshman. Coming into her sophomore year, Herrera expects her team to finish top three in the league and for herself to finish top 10.  

“We’re working really hard and putting in the work to be really good this season,” said Herrera. “We just can’t be negative. When workouts are really hard, we have to keep trying to think of the positive things. The more positive we think, the stronger we become.” 

West Ranch High School  

Second-year cross country head coach Jonathan Choi is looking to build an exciting and young program, Choi said. With runners like Bille Issa, who Choi feels is probably going to win the whole thing, the West Ranch Wildcats seem excited and poised for a strong season.  

“I think we’re young and ambitious and have a rich history that we’re looking to build off of,” said Choi. “Our mentality is to focus on the championship weeks. Trust the process, trust the plan. Take everything one day at a time. Continue to build relationships and just have fun. We’re excited to race after last year.” 

Choi is referring to the death of Eyob Anbessaw, a beloved teammate and athlete who died from cardiomyopathy. He was a kid who would always come in early and stay late, said Choi. The team looks to rally through the death with extra motivation for this season as they look to make a strong CIF push.  

West Ranch High School junior Hayden Washington is the first girl to finish the mixed division boys and girls cross country race at Central Park in Saugus on Saturday, 030621. Dan Watson/The Signal

Along with Issa, William Bennett and Hayden Washington will look to be leading the way for the Wildcats. Bennett enters his second season on the team and is now a senior captain. Bennett has had many struggles in his young career, which includes breaking his spine and shattering his foot while trying to build a treehouse and falling 20 feet from an oak tree. Despite the struggles, Bennett is ready for another strong season. 

“We’ve been training really hard,” said Bennett. “We have the motivation and drive to win. We want to do some big things this season. West Ranch has held the league title for five years in a row. We’re looking to hold onto the title this year once again.”  

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