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.
At first glance, Royal might seem like a curious inclusion here among the cluster of top-tier Southern Section teams expected to compete for titles. The Highlanders finished 7th in the Division 3 state championship in 2019, taking second in the Southern Section finals the week before. That performance came from nowhere: Royal hadn't even made it to prelims as a team since 2010.
When you look at the make-up of the team last fall, though, things begin to take shape. The Highlanders return all seven of their runners from the state meet, which indicates they were a team on the rise in 2019. That development could reach its peak this winter, as Royal has 4 seniors up front that will be eager to make a push for the podium. Matt Russell and Angus Fitzgerald lead the way, followed closely by Marcus Fehlman and Jack De La Rionda, a projected top 4 made up entirely of Class of 2021 runners separated by less than 30 seconds.
While those senior leaders should inject a sense of urgency into training and racing this season, this team also has a talented young core to support them this year and take over in 2021. Sophomore Noah De La Rionda, along with juniors Roberto Alvarez and Ponce Cole, are projected to round out the varsity squad (and Grant DeLeon has a chance to compete for those spots, too). Behind them, though, depth is a major concern. There is plenty of talent for a run at the podium this winter, but the Highlanders will need to develop some young talent to stay in contention next fall.