Sophomores Aishling Fabian (left) and Kelli Gaffney return to lead perennial Southern Section Division 1 champion Great Oak. (Photos by Patrick Corsinita)
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We move forward with our XC season preview series as it appears there will be some form of a cross country season in the Southern Section this winter. We structure this article with the knowledge that Southern Section and CIF-State championship meets have been canceled and overall competition will be limited.
We have moved into a new century, but when it comes to Great Oak's dominance over the competition in Division I, do not expect too much to change. Even with the Wolfpack graduating four -- a quartet that all rank among Great Oak's best ever -- their undeniable depth has become the norm.
Behind Great Oak, we have nearly a dozen teams where there is not much to distinguish from one another. Any other year, our preseason team rankings would include eleven other squads that could all finish in the final postseason top five!
No program has been more dominant in the Southern Section, regardless of division, than the Great Oak girls. Coach Doug Soles' team has captured the last EIGHT CIF-SS Division 1 championships and 10 of the past 11 titles! With that, a trio of sophomores will lead Great Oak. Kelli Gaffney and Aishling Fabian were two of the top freshman at the 2019 State Championships while Melinda Dang's 18:06.1 performance at the Clovis Invite also places her as one of the best in her class for California.
Meanwhile, junior Divine Torza also shined in that 2019 postseason, helping her squad to another top-10 national ranking. Behind those four, seven other girls broke the 18:30 threshold for three-mile courses in 2019, led by UC Davis-bound senior Brianna Weidler (17:09.7 best) who missed the 2019 postseason due to injuries. All signs show that Weidler is back to full strength after several performances this past fall.
In moving up to Division 1 in 2019, Saugus was second at the 2019 CIF-SS Finals, qualifying for a 15th consecutive trip to the State Meet. Their greatest challenge may very well be replacing head coach Rene Paragas, who stepped away from coaching this past fall. An icon in the coaching community, Paragas led his girls' teams to eight divisional titles, along with 12 top-three finishes as he orchestrated the program to one of the best ever in California history.
Saugus does return Hannah Fredericks (pictured), who placed third at the 2019 finals, and Isabella Duarte, who was eighth. They also return Julia Pearson, who overcame injuries all of 2019 to run well at the State Meet.
Beginning with Yucaipa and Beckman, the rest of the top squads in Division 1 can be lumped all into one large tier of talent.
Yucaipa has qualified for the State Meet in six of the last eight seasons. Coming off a sixth-place finish, they will look to overcome three scorers that have since graduated. Marisa Cole and Kaitlyn Townsend, and Cassidy Jarish will lead the Thunderbirds in 2021. All three were integral parts to their 2019 squad that placed 10th at the State Meet.
One of the most improved programs in recent years has been Beckman. After finishing ninth at the 2019 CIF-SS Finals, they return Estella Knobbe, Isabella Tasser, Melanie Pakingen (Bib 43), and Joy Weber from that squad. Knobbe and Tasser both dipped under 18 minutes over a three-mile course.
Our next three programs have been staples of success at the divisional finals for quite some time now. Vista Murrieta, Mira Costa, and San Clemente.
Vista Murrieta qualified for its 11th straight State Meet in 2019. They do graduate their top scorer but also keep in mind that they were without the services of Devyn Candaele (pictured), their top scorer from 2018. Fully healed, she looked strong in several track races before the shutdown last March. Aniya Pretlow, Bella Smith, and Emily Bourque all return with considerable postseason success.
Mira Costa returns the division's top runner in Dalia Frias. More on Frias below. For the 11th time in the past 13 seasons, head coach Rene Smith led Mira Costa back to the State Meet. Anna Chittenden, Heather Jensen, and Jasmin Peterman impressed in their performances back in late September at the Desert Twilight XC Festival. Also, watch for Ella Parsley who helped the squad to a fifth-place finish at the 2019 State Meet.
San Clemente will miss defending CIF-SS Division 1 champ in Hana Catsimanes (now at Wake Forest) but return most of the squad that placed fourth at the 2019 Finals. Kelsie Yamano returns as one of Orange County's best while Savannah Punak (bib 376 in finish line photo above) and Kennedy Banks are coming off successful freshman seasons.
In another tier, not too far off the rest of the division's best you will find Chino Hills, Burbank, Tesoro, Trabuco Hills, and Aliso Niguel.
Individually, Mira Costa's Dalia Frias (pictured) peaked as well as anyone in California during the 2019 postseason ending her season as a Foot Locker National finalist. She finished second at the CIF-SS Finals, only to come back with a better performance, running 17:38.4 to place third at the State Meet. Frias was one of California's top girls with a seventh-place finish at the Desert Twilight XC Festival this past fall.
One of the few headlines regarding transfers in the Southern Section was that of Mia Barnett (pictured). The three-time CIF-SS Division 5 champion moved over from Village Christian to nearby Crescenta Valley. Already boasting some strong numbers in recent months, she won the 2019 Foot Locker West Regional to qualify for the Nationals and has signed with the University of Virginia.
Coming off her breakout campaign in 2019, Brianne Smith of Quartz Hill returns after her ninth-place finish at the CIF-SS Division 1 Final. She backed that effort up with an 18th-place finish (18:07.3) to rank as one of the top freshmen at the State Meet.
Upland's Riley Rodriguez looks to replicate what she put together as a freshman in 2018. That season, she placed sixth at the CIF-SS Finals, qualifying for the State Meet as an individual. In 2019, she placed 17th but ranks as one of the top individual returners from the divisional finals.
Meanwhile, do not overlook the fact that two of the division's best in 2018 did not compete in the 2019 postseason. Chino Hills' Jacqueline Duarte (pictured) and Vista Murrieta's Candaele will look to replicate their 2018 success where they placed fourth and fifth, respectively, at the CIF-SS Division 1 final.
Also, watch for Emily Richards (17:13.3 three-mile best) of Aliso Niguel and Annalise Munoz (17:21.1 best) of Trabuco Hills. Munoz was 13th overall at the CIF-SS divisional finals and the seventh faster returner from that day.
TOP RETURNING CIF-SS DIVISION 1 GIRLS TEAM RANKINGS
TOP 25 RETURNING GIRLS FROM 2019 CIF-SS DIVISION 1 CHAMPIONSHIP
|2||Dalia Frias||10||Mira Costa High School (SS)||17:29.40||2|
|3||Hannah Fredericks||11||Saugus High School (SS)||17:33.10||3|
|7||Kelli Gaffney||9||Great Oak High School (SS)||17:39.00||6|
|8||Isabella Duarte||10||Saugus High School (SS)||17:39.10||7|
|9||Brianne Smith||9||Quartz Hill High (SS)||17:40.60||8|
|10||Divine Torza||10||Great Oak High School (SS)||17:43.10||9|
|13||Annalise Munoz||10||Trabuco Hills High School (SS)||17:45.20||12|
|17||Riley Rodriguez||10||Upland High (SS)||17:53.30||15|
|19||Alejandra Ayala||11||Paramount High (SS)||17:55.50||0|
|20||Emily Richards||11||Aliso Niguel High School (SS)||17:56.30||17|
|21||Aniya Pretlow||11||Vista Murrieta (SS)||17:57.60||18|
|23||Lauren Schuerger||10||Aliso Niguel High School (SS)||17:58.60||20|
|24||Kelsie Yamano||11||San Clemente High (SS)||18:02.40||21|
|25||Kaho Cichon||10||Fountain Valley (SS)||18:03.40||22|
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Photos by Frank Bellino, Patrick Corsinita and Raymond Tran