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.
--Finding a "sleeper" in California is a difficult task. How do you predict when a particular team is getting ready to make a noteworthy breakthrough amid the hundreds of good-but-not-great programs out there? One way is to look for teams with unusually large numbers of returning runners, on the premise that they may not have to find or develop new runners to succeed. Sanger certainly fits the bill - they had no seniors in the top 12 in 2019 and
Of course, having lots of returners doesn't help if you aren't developing them. The Apaches have made significant progress each of the last 3 seasons (top 5 averages of 20:43 in 2017, 20:06 in 2018, and 19:18 in 2019). Junior Nia Lamas is on the verge of being an individual star, with sub-18 potential at Woodward Park this year. Senior Rebeca Coronado is a very capable #2 runner that should be under 18:30. If the rest of the top 7 can improve enough to drop their top 5 average into the 18:40's, this team will be in the mix in Division 2.
Another potential sign of a team on the rise is what I call unfinished business: did the team's state meet performance fall short of expectations, leaving a desire to do better this time around? That can happen because of inexperience, because a team peaked for their section final and ran out of gas, or because of something as simple as injury or illness that masks the team's true potential in returning rankings. After finishing a close second in the Central Section D2 final, Sanger ended up 20th at the state meet. This kind of motivation can be particularly powerful when it intersects with a large senior class that wants to redeem themselves before graduating; the Apaches are projected to have four in their top 7.
There is one glaring issue Sanger needs to address to fulfill their role as sleepers: the big gap between Coronado and their main pack. The improvement of Sienna Bianchi, Kaley Cardenas, Jessica Recinos, and Anayacsi Diaz will be the real key to success this winter. It would also help if the Apaches could fins one more top 7 caliber runner in the freshman class (something they've done each of the past three seasons). I think this team has the potential to be in the top 10 in Division 2. Given how closely grouped the contenders are in that race (places 3 through 9 in last year's team scoring were separated by less than 60 points total, with no more than 17 between any two teams), how far up in the top 10 they could be with a strong performance?