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.
--On the one hand, St. Francis (SJ) has been one of the state's most consistent programs during the past decade. The Troubadors have been in the top 10 at the state meet for at least 8 years, which is as far back as I looked (sorry, I'm tired). They've won 4 consecutive SJS Division 2 titles (and finished 2nd the year before the streak). Putting them in a list of 30 Teams to Watch is hardly a stretch.
On the other hand, this program has been capped at 4th place or lower at the state meet since a 3rd-place finish in 2014. My Improvement Rating metric bears this out: St. Francis ranks in the top 10 in the state over the past 7 years when it comes to progressing year-over-year, but their numbers over the past three years have been less impressive. Part of this can be attributed to the huge number of strong teams in Division 2; you can finish 6th in that race and still be top 10 in the state overall, and that is clearly the level that this St. Francis program is on.
So the fundamental question is, will that trend continue or will the Troubadors get back to being in the top 3 again? Make no mistake, there is talent aplenty here. Cate Joaquin is an absolute beast of a #1 runner, the 6th-fastest returner in California and one of the top 50 runners in the nation. Tatiana Cornejo is a very capable #2 runner who showed flashes of her own star potential last season. Behind those two St. Francis has a very deep pack, with 4 girls separated by only 28 seconds: Hanna Hekkanen, Claire Silva, Daphne Witherell, and Simone Deberry (and Paige Quigley has the potential to join that group this season).
I don't think the Troubadors will break through this winter, although I do expect them to be in the top 5 in Division 2 and top 10 in California overall. It's the 2021 St. Francis squad that really has me intrigued, because this program is losing only one senior from its projected top twelve this year. That means patience is the name of the game this year - stay healthy and continue to get better. If it all comes together this winter, so much the better, but look out for St. Francis as a state title contender and possible national-caliber squad next fall.