For the last several years I've done a Countdown to XC feature in the 30 days leading up to the start of the fall season. This strange school year will be no exception! However, the usual format for the countdown won't work this time around - it depends heavily on spring track data (which we don't have) to evaluate championship contenders and try to predict emerging challengers. So, instead of a rankings-style countdown, I'm going to feature 30 boys teams and 30 girls teams that I think will have a significant impact on the upcoming, unique winter cross country season. We'll begin with the obvious contenders state-wide and in every section, and then work our way to some potential sleepers.
The Wolfpack's state championship streak was broken in 2019, but you can bet the spirits of their returning runners have not been. Far from it, in fact, as evidenced by their offseason results from Desert Twilight: Great Oak sported a 43 second 1-5 split with their 1-2 runners, Brianna Weidler and Ally Talley, coming from outside of last year's top 7.
Of course, you can't put too much stock in results from October when teams are training for February and march. We can learn one important thing from them: depth will be a strength for Great Oak this winter, and once their returning top 4 from 2019 are back up to speed this will be an extremely formidable team. Using PR 5K times from last fall, the front 5 of Kelli Gaffney, Melinda Dang, Divine Torza, Joelle Upshur and Aishling Fabian all ran under 18:20 and were separated by only 20 seconds. This is also a young team, as four of those five are sophomores (and Torza is a junior). Adding seniors Weidler, Talley, and Sophie Rodriguez into the mix, that gives the Wolfpack 8 runners with sub-19 times on their resumes.
Will the next Great Oak individual star emerge from that group, or will this team focus on pack running with interchangeable leaders? It's nearly impossible to predict individual breakouts without track season data, but we do know that the Wolfpack is among the state's best at improving from season to season. That's especially true at 5K, where they rank #1 over the last 7 years and #2 over shorter terms. They also score high in the Improvement Ratings (which I will publish closer to the start of the season) at 3 miles, but they show signs of coming back to the pack at that distance, which could be due to any number of factors. With or without a new star to lead the way, this squad has the talent to get back to the top of the podium and establish a new streak.