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.
Granada Hills has been on top of the LA City Section for the last two seasons, and it doesn't look like that will change this winter. The bigger question is, can they break through and finally contend for a top 10 finish in Division 1? I'm betting that we see a significant improvement from 2019, and I have a good reason for thinking that way.
The Highlanders are a perfect example of why I look at year-to-year improvement data. After making big gains in three consecutive years from 2016 - 2018, the team actually regressed last fall. There can be a lot of reasons for that to happen (injuries, illnesses, the loss or transfer out of an expected returning runner). Even the state's biggest and best programs have off years where they don't improve (for example, Great Oak's 2019 top 5 average for 3 miles was 12 seconds slower than their returning times from 2018). It's not universal, but in most cases a strong program will rebound with solid improvement the year after a down season like that, and many progress significantly.
Led by junior Sofia Abrego, a potential top 10 individual who provides a low number just about every race, Granada Hills follows with a solid pack that stays close together (22 seconds separating their returning 2-5 runners). The problem is the gaps: a large one between Abrego and the pack, and another between the pack and their returning 6 and 7. If the Highlanders return to their normal off season improvement, though, both of those problems could be addressed.
Last year, it took a top 5 average of 19:01 or better to crack the top 10 in D1 at the state meet. It's not hard to envision this team getting into that range, but that hinges on the idea that last year's results were an anomaly. If I'm wrong about that, the floor for this team is still a repeat of last year: an LA City championship and a trip to the state meet. If I'm right, Granada Hills could catch a few teams by surprise.