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.
Orange Lutheran may be one of the most underrated teams in the state. The Lancers grade out as the 8th-best returning team in the Southern Section using 5K times, putting them right behind some of the state's D1 and D2 powers - but this is a Division 4 team. If it weren't for the bad luck of being in the same classification as Sage Creek, we would be talking about an overwhelming favorite to win a state title this year.
Lutheran may still win the title, although their path is difficult. There are a lot of factors in their favor, starting with a loaded senior class that should be strongly motivated to close out their careers with the best possible performance. Sophia Gutierrez and Nicole Meyer lead the Class of 2021 for the Lancers, who could have 4 seniors in their top 7 this winter. Juniors Lauren Landrith and Sophia Gibson round out a strong top 4 pack separated by only 45 seconds if you're looking at 3 mile times, it's a top 5 that includes Ishani Hansji). Behind that lead group, though, there is a significant gap back to the depth runners, who will need to step up to give this squad a chance to unseat the defending champs.
Recent years indicate that the Lancers will improve significantly from their 2019 returning times, which would help close that gap and make them a formidable opponent. This team ranks 6th for year-to-year progression over the past 3 seasons (using 3 mile times), once again putting them on par with some of the top D1 & D2 programs in the state in that metric.
After failing to make the state meet in 2918, Lutheran burst onto the scene with a 3rd-place finish last fall. With 6 of their top 7 returning from that race, the experience is in place to make another run at the podium. The Lancers would really benefit from discovering or developing one more top 5 caliber runner and an infusion of youth (their top returning sophomore is #12 on the team). If they can find that final piece and continue to develop their depth as they have been, an upset in Fresno is possible.