Arizona Meet Gives CA Elites Rare Chance At Competition

From left, Colin Sahlman, Dalia Frias and Colin Peattie are among elite California cross country runners scheduled to compete Friday night at the Desert Twilight XC Festival outside of Phoenix. California high school athletics has been shut down since mid-March and this is a rare opportunity in the six months since for Golden State athletes to compete. (Photos: Patrick Corsinita, Deanna Turner, Raymond Tran)

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Some of California's top distance runners, the lot of them chomping at the bit for a taste of competition after more than half a calendar year without it, will finally -- FINALLY! -- get that opportunity on Friday night at the Desert Twilight XC Festival outside of Phoenix. 

The event, scheduled for three sessions over two days -- Thursday and Friday -- will be held on a 3.1-mile golf course layout at The Links At Queen Creek in the San Tan Valley, some 40 miles southeast of downtown Phoenix.

  • Fans will not be allowed at the meet and strict adherence to health guidelines is mandated.
  • If not competing, masks are required, including non-competing athletes and coaches.

The tremendous level of interest in this event forced organizers, led by meet director Ellie Hardt, to close entries some 10 days earlier than scheduled. 

From the meet webpage:

"We all know things will look different this year, but we also know that the main objective is to get kids on the starting line and get them doing what they love and have worked so hard at."

Of the 20 races scheduled, four have been created to accommodate unattached and club teams like those from California, who are still functioning under the CIF's "summer rules" while awaiting a late-December resumption of high school competition. The other 16 races -- six Thursday afternoon, six Friday morning and four Friday night -- are for small and large schools currently in season.

More than a dozen clubs from the Golden State have entered. Some of the clubs are exclusive to a single high school program while others are athletes from a collection of schools in a particular region. Desert Twilight also accommodates individuals competing unattached. 

(Note: References to California high school affiliations are made for identification purposes.)

Two of the clubs scheduled to compete in the elite sweepstakes race on Friday night include the lineups from Newbury Park and Great Oak. The boys from those two high school teams rolled through CIF competition last fall and went 1-2 for the national title held in Portland. While the lineups for each are different from a year ago, the expectations for state and national success are not.

But with the CIF schedule still some three months off and the State Meet nearly six months away, Friday night may be nothing more than an extremely welcomed rust-buster. 

"That's kind of been a focus race for our kids for the last month or so, just excited about that opportunity to get out there and compete against -- a lot of good California teams will be out there," said Doug Soles, coach of Great Oak/South Temecula Track Club. 

The Unattached/Club races are scheduled for Friday night, where temperatures are still expected to hover in the 90s, at best. If the forecasts are to be believed, Cool Breeze, this is not. 

It's not just the air temperature that should be sizzling! Rust-buster or not. Six months before State? Whatever.

The lineup for Race 18, Unattached/Club Sweepstakes for the boys, is stocked full of CA elites. In addition to the Newbury Park Athletic Club (Newbury Park HS) and South Temecula Track Club (Great Oak HS), is the Menlo iGreyhounds, which includes top runners from nationally ranked Bellarmine College Prep from San Jose. Eight of the top 15 returning boys for 5K are scheduled to take the line Friday night. 

And, yes, we're talking about California high school cross country athletes competing -- FINALLY!

"If we didn't do this, it would be tough," Newbury Park's Sean Brosnan said earlier this week. "It's breaking up this part of the season. ... This is a highlight. Just for them to travel, get into that mode again, step on the line. Unfortunately it won't be in a Newbury Park High School uniform, it will be in a Newbury Park Athletic Club uniform; at least they get to run with Newbury Park across their chest and it will be really cool for them."

Last December, the boys from both Newbury Park HS (SS) and Great Oak HS (SS) took CIF-State team titles to Portland and battled for a national title with Brosnan's Panthers prevailing by all of two points. Newbury Park graduated perhaps the greatest 1-2 punch in CA history in Nico Young and Jace Aschbrenner but returns a deep young unit led by junior Colin Sahlman, Young's twin brothers Lex and Leo, both sophomores, Sahlman's sophomore brother Aaron, senior Nicholas Goldstein and junior Daniel Appleford, among others. Add to the mix senior newcomer Christian Simone, a transfer from, of all places, Great Oak. 

"My team is better than it was last year, honestly," Brosnan said. "These guys are fitter, they're stronger. Last year we had a lot of young guys on my team -- I still have young guys on my team -- it just depends on how they've developed over the year. They and we have been able to use this weird time to train a little differently ... nothing crazy but just focus on training instead of racing. ... I think people are going to see a big thing. If we went against my team last year, I think we'd beat 'em.

"I have sophomores that aren't freshman anymore. I have guys in my top seven that people probably don't even know who they are that were on my team last year. ... If we raced at Woodbridge, it would probably take a sub-14:30 to make my top seven."

While the Great Oak boys lineup has almost completely turned over, with the exception of senior John Worthy, Coach Soles is quick to point out that it was his B team that took the line and won the CIF-Southern Section Division I title.

"A lot of those guys are back," Soles said. "They won CIF finals last year, and they're a year older ready to rock and roll."

Soles has 14 CIF-State championships since 2010, including the last six in a row on the boys side, one national boys title (2015) and national runners-up each of the last two Decembers. The Great Oak program has always had quality next-man-up depth. Austin Montez and sophomore Nathan Lennox are among new names to know. 

"On the boys side, we've got a loaded squad," Soles said. "Because we lost a lot of big names people thought we couldn't still be at the level we've been at. ... The lineup has been replenished and we'll probably be pretty similar to what we were last year. It's just a matter of people trying to figure out the new names but results-wise we look pretty solid.

"It's easy, I think, to write a team off when you don't know who any of the kids are but we had a lot of talent in that freshman group last year so we have three or four really good sophomore boys pushing for our top seven, we've got a couple of good junior guys and obviously a real strong senior class. We develop well and I think we'll end up with similar results to what we've had in the past."

Bellarmine had one of the top boys teams in the state in 2019 and none of its top scorers were seniors. The three elites at the top of that lineup -- Colin Peattie, Galen Topper and Nolan Topper -- are scheduled to run here with the aforementioned Menlo club in a lineup that also includes Kamran Murray of Menlo HS and Rohun Agrawal of Monta Vista (CC), Calvin Katz of Sacred Heart Prep (CC) and Advait Krishnan of Evergreen Valley (CC).

Peattie and Nolan Topper were Foot Locker National finalists last December. 

Additional top CA boys running with other clubs or as unattached individuals include Kellen Steplight of Vacaville HS (SJ) running with the Bulldog Harriers, Alex Mainvielle (West Torrance HS (SS)/Torrance Run Club), Josh Murray (West Torrance HS (SS)/Torrance Run Club), Isaiah Givens (Pasadena HS (SS)/Pasadena TC), Angus Fitzgerald (Royal HS (SS)/unattached), Bryce Gilmore (Sage Creek HS (SD)/unattached), Ewan Macfarlane (Peninsula HS (SS)/unattached), Tristan Amell (Santa Monica HS (SS)/unattached). 

Race 18 is scheduled for 8:10 p.m. and will go off in three waves every two minutes. Most of the elites mentioned as well as the top teams are all scheduled in the wave at 8:10 p.m. 

The girls equivalent race, scheduled for 7:35 p.m. with three waves every two minutes, isn't as stocked as the boys sweepstakes but still includes some of CA's best. 

Dalia Frias (Mira Costa HS (SS)/Beach Cities Running Club) is a junior who placed third in Division I at the CIF-State Championships and went on to qualify for Foot Locker Nationals. Emma Hadley (Anaheim Canyon HS/SS) and UCLA-commit Siena Palicke (Yorba Linda HS/SS) are both running for Quick Track Club. The lineup for South Temecula Track Club (Great Oak HS/SS) includes sophomores Aishling Fabian and Kelli Gaffney as well as senior and recent UC Davis commit Brianna Weidler. Sam McDonnell and Ailish Hawkins lead the group from the Newbury Park Athletic Club (Newbury Park HS/SS). 

Other top CA girls running unattached include Jill Walker (Simi Valley HS/SS), Stormy Wallace (Sage Creek HS/SD) and Jadyn Zdanavage (Portola HS/SS). 

There are also races at 5 p.m. and 5:35 p.m. on Friday that include California-based club and unattached athletes.