Great Oak coach Doug Soles addresses his team before a recent pre-season practice. (Credit: Jeffrey Parenti)
A couple weeks ago, we visited with head coach Doug Soles and the Great Oak cross country team during a midweek practice in Temecula to discuss the 2019 season, which began over the weekend with a dominating performance by the Wolfpack at the Big Ditch Invitational in Arroyo Grande.
During our visit, we conducted one-on-one interviews with Soles and a handful of his top returning runners. Find links to those interviews below.
The Great Oak girls have won nine CIF-Southern Section titles, including the last seven in a row, eight CIF-State Division 1 titles, and placed third twice and second once at Nike Cross Nationals (NXN). The Wolfpack boys have won four CIF-SS titles and five consecutive CIF-State D-1 titles. The 2015 boys team won the NXN championship and last year's team placed second.
This year's Great Oak girls team returns six of the top seven and has more-than-usual depth with nine freshmen.
"By the end of the season, we'll have a couple of freshman girls cracking that top seven," Soles said. "Depth is a lot better on the girls side than it was last year."
Senior Tori Gaitan, the Division 1 champion at both the CIF-Southern Section and CIF-State championships who was 18th at NXN, missed all of the track season as a result of a sudden growth spurt that was somewhere between two and three-and-a-half inches, depending on the source of the information.
"Really, really big spurt in the spring, so we shut her down and let her body adjust to the changes she was going through," Soles said.
Regardless of how much she grew, there is no debate that Gaitan is back, "100 percent healthy and looking good. She'll be the same old Tori," Soles said.
CHECK OUT A FEATURE INTERVIEW WITH TORI GAITAN
Gaitan opened with a victory at the season-opening Big Ditch Invitational on Saturday, running the 4K race in 14:16.27 to defeat Ventura senior Madeleine Locher (14:18.24). Junior Brianna Weidler was third (14:54.80) as Great Oak took five of the top six places and seven of the top 10. (Note: Gaitan's time at the uncommon 4K distance would have slotted top 10 U.S. based on 2018 national 4K rankings.)
Aishling Fabian (14:43.55) led the freshman group in the Frosh/Soph Girls race at Big Ditch, placing second, just ahead of classmates Kelli Gaffney (14:45.89) and Melinda Dang (14:46.92) as Great Oak took six of the top nine and seven of the top 11 spots with five frosh and two sophs.
Great Oak's boys team lost three seniors to graduation from the 2018 squad that won Section and State titles and placed second at NXN. That was a team without a couple of key pieces at the end. Gabe Abbes, now a senior, was one of those sidelined by injury. He's back and a consistent top-five scorer when fully fit.
Junior Mateo Joseph, the team's top scorer at State and at NXN, missed the track season with an injury that has fully healed, he said.
"Bigger, faster, stronger," Soles said of Joseph.
Add Abbes to Joseph, seniors Chris Verdugo and Cole Sawires Yager and junior John Worthy and that's a strong top five. But young depth, other returners and the addition of Chaminade transfer Christian Simone should keep everyone on notice that no slots are guaranteed.
"We return a top five that is about as good as anybody that is out there for sure and our depth is second to none," Soles said. "We've got some really good guys that are coming on. (Simone) is looking really good. He ran the same time at the Baldwin Park 5K as Chris Verdugo (15:07). We're going to have some depth."
At Big Ditch, the Wolfpack boys dominated even more than did the girls.
Sawires Yager went 12:05.92 to win the Junior/Senior Boys 4K, leading a 1-7 sweep where 13 of the first 14 runners to cross were from Great Oak. That parade followed with Reza in second (12:07.89), Verdugo in third (12:15.30), then Joseph (12:17.17), Worthy (12:18.89), junior Austin Montez (12:21.80) and Candray (12:22.61).
"The craziest thing," Soles said, "of our top 16 boys, we could run almost any combination of those 16 boys and put out a really, really good team."
The optimism about the boys team begs the obvious question: Could this 2019 team match the achievement of the 2015 boys team that won the title at NXN?
"That team was so good through the first three guys," Soles said. "To be able to compete with them, you've got to be able to put up comparable numbers through the first three guys. Mateo, Gabe, Chris, John and those guys, they show flashes of being that type of athlete that can go to NXN and finish in the top 20.
"We were second at NXN last year with a very comparable performance to our 2015 team. That was without Gabe Abbes. I feel like this year we're going to be really hard to beat."