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.
This 30 Teams to Watch series will definitely feature schools from every division and section, but I want to make something clear in this edition: Foothill Tech isn't being included just because they're the best team in Division IV. The Dragons are a legitimate state-level power regardless of school size, one of the top 10 returning squads in the state, period, with all five scorers from the 2019 State D-IV championship returning.
This team has good talent up front in Joshua Villasenor and Oliver Pick, with Ethan Crouch and Finn Blacker close enough to form a strong four-man pack. Villasenor placed fifth at the State Meet and is the top returner from the D-IV race. The fifth senior of the group, Zen Li, scored as part of back-to-back Southern Section titles each of the past two years and ran No. 5 for FT last November at State.
There is also solid depth on this Dragon squad, although they will need some younger runners to step up to the next level if they're going to reach their full potential as a team. The good news: there are three up-and-coming younger runners at Foothill Tech who are prime candidates to provide reinforcements. Sophomores Jonah Billings and Kai Benson should compete for spots in the top five this winter with juniors Jacob Walker and Frank Stillwell. All of them got major race experience last year, and the Dragons can go far if just one of the four has a breakthrough season.
Foothill Tech fielded five juniors and two freshmen in last year's state championships, so they have the rare luxury of returning a full slate of highly experienced runners. Add to that their track record of improvement: the Dragons have been California's best program for year-to-year progression over the last three cross country seasons and No. 2 over a five-year span. Finally, you can never discount the value of leadership and urgency that comes from a large, strong group of seniors.
If you're not familiar with Coach Ken Reeves' modus operandi, remember not to put too much stock in the Dragons' early results. The perennial-championship coach has stepped away but the principles of his program should be well-rooted. This program always comes on strong at the end, training through regular season invitationals while often racing on tougher courses. This is an intriguing team because we're going to see the culmination of the work put in by a group of seniors, but also the development of the next core group that will replace them and try to continue the program's success. My prediction: Foothill Tech has the talent on the team right now to win two more Division IV State Meets, but this winter will be the best opportunity to compete with the state's heavy hitters in larger divisions.