Returning are the top three finishers from the 2019 Division 4 race at the CIF-Southern Section Cross Country Championships: (from left) Sophia Gutierrez, state champion and section runner-up Brooke Secreto, and section champion Audrey Suarez. (Photos by DeAnna Turner and Jeffrey Parenti)
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Despite the cancellation of the Southern Section Cross Country Championships we move forward with our XC season preview series in the hopes that there is some form of a 2020-21 season and out of respect and appreciation for all the athletes and programs whose past results and future prospects warrant recognition.
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A strong Orange Lutheran coming off a section division team title in the fall of 2019, along with two of the state's top individuals from that last season, the Division 4 girls outlook in the Southern Section is one stocked full of storylines.
Individually, seniors Brooke Secreto of Foothill Tech and Audrey Suarez of Mayfield are the top two returners from the D-IV race at the 2019 State Meet. On that blustery day in Fresno, it was Secreto who ran off with the title a week after she crossed 3.3 seconds behind Suarez at the Southern Section Final. Suarez, bound for Stanford, was the State Meet champion as a sophomore and placed third as a freshman. She has never finished lower than second at the SS final.
Secreto, headed to Sacramento State, ran away with the State title by nearly 15 seconds in 17:33.4, with Suarez crossing in third. Secreto ascension to the title saw her improve by more than an astonishing 90 seconds from her sophomore season.
Among other individual storylines is the return of the Quintero sisters, Daniela and Natalia, to lead Harvard Westlake after not competing during the 2019 season. Daniela (at right in photo), now a junior, was a 12-second winner over Suarez in the section final as a freshman in 2018 with Natalia (at left in photo), now a senior, placing fourth. They went 2-4 behind Suarez that year at State.
The younger Quintero impressed recently with her 14th-place finish at the AAU National Championships earlier last month. Head Coach Jonas Koolsbergen has led the program to six top-three team finishes in 10 seasons, before 2019.
The Orange Lutheran girls were one of the top small-school cross country programs from 2001-2005 then disappeared off the scene for over a decade. The Lancers began their climb back to the top several years ago culminating in a convincing 75-136 victory over Laguna Beach for the CIF-SS Division 4 title in 2019. First-year head coach, Kristen Goosens, led that young crew from a 10th-place finish in 2018 to the title.
Reflecting back to the weeks building up to the 2019 CIF-SS Division 4 Championships, the title was up for grabs between several squads. But midway through the race, Orange Lutheran burst into the lead and opened it up with a convincing victory.
The O-Lu girls return their top four from that race, led by Sophia Gutierrez, who crossed with a strong third-place finish (17:47.9). Nicole Meyer, Sophia Gibson and Lauren Landrith round out a quartet that is among the top 13 finishers from the 2019 CIF-SS Finals.
Laguna Beach and Covina battled one another at the 2019 CIF-SS Finals, with the Breakers of Laguna Beach prevailing to earn the runner-up plaque with their highest finish since 2004. Jessie Rose (bib 831) and Nina Rogers both finished in the top 10 at the 2019 Final. That strength at the top should be enough to hold off Covina once again. Rose placed eighth at State ranks top-5 among returners from that race.
Covina will look to sophomore Miranda Palacios in the transition away from the graduation of mainstay Katelyn Vuong. Covina had three top-three finishes in the section finals over the previous six seasons. Audrey Carrillo, along with sisters Hanna Espinoza and Alexa Espinoza, add to Covinia's depth.
Behind the same three squads that finished atop the rankings in 2019, the programs in line for a what now will be a mythical top-five finish vary. On paper, the fight for those spots fall to Bishop Amat, South Pasadena, and El Segundo.
Led by sophomore Emma Arrendondo, Bishop Amat looks to return to the days that saw it consistently among the division's top four (2014-2017). South Pasadena returns the bulk of its 11th-place squad and is led by State Meet qualifier, Sydney Morrow (pictured). El Segundo has been a top-five team four years running. The Eagles, led by junior Tyler Matlosz, must overcome the graduation of their top two scorers from the 2019 section finals.
After five straight seasons of qualifying for the State Championships, with two titles in 2017-2018, Foothill Technology looks to overcome the retirement of the most successful cross country coach in California state history, Ken Reeves. Reeves began the program in 2014 and only added to his coaching resume. Kevin Dinkler, the Dragon's head track and field coach since 2016, inherits a girls team that graduated just one of the seven who took the line at the section final. Returning scorers behind Secreto at junior Sofie Prieto and seniors Hannah Dearman-So and Brianna Valdavinos.
Among Division 4 returners are four who ran sub-18 minute over the 5000-meter Woodward Park course and six of the top 10 from the SS final.
Orange Lutheran's Gutierrez placed third in 2019 while South Pasadena's Morrow was sixth in the section final. But, moving into the division is Esperanza and Nicole Reeves. A State Meet qualifier out of Division 3 in 2019 (17:46.4) would have placed as an individual in Division 4.
As a freshman in 2019, Barstow's Angelina Vasquez placed seventh as she also qualified for State as an individual. Yucca Valley's Cadence Youngman finished ninth at sections and has displayed some solid off-season improvement going into the 2020-21. Also, watch for La Canada's Ellaney Matarese (bib 794), an individual qualifier in 2019, who brings three years of State Meet experience to the course. Granite Hills' Symone Koppel was a '19 State Meet qualifier but competed in Division 3. She comes into the 2021 season as the 10th fastest returner from those same finals.
In regard to any star freshmen joining the scene, keep your eyes on Oaks Christian's Grace Geyer. Geyer is coming off a 22nd place finish at the AAU National Meet last month.
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Mark Gardner is a regular contributor for MileSplitCA as its Southern Section editor.
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Photos by DeAnna Turner, Patrick Corsinita, Pat Rhames, and Jeffrey Parenti.