The girls cross country team at Cathedral Catholic celebrated a team victory at the Palos Verdes Invitational in early October. (Jeffrey Parenti photo)
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SAN DIEGO -- Cathedral Catholic coach Dan Geiger helps put together the San Diego Section cross country rankings each week but before the first poll, he was really puzzled about one team: Cathedral Catholic.
"I knew we would be good, but not that good," said Geiger of the Don girls who are not only the No. 1 in the section in Division III, but after a dominant performance at the 73rd Mt. SAC Invitational, figure to be No. 1 in the state, or close, over the final weeks leading up to the championships Nov. 27th at Woodward Park in Fresno.
Depth is worth its weight in premium gasoline in the Golden State. Only one thing can beat it -- superior front-runners.
When Geiger tried to rank his team in August, he had a pair of question marks that ended up being exclamation points.
Asked to name his top seven runners, Geiger can't do it. He lists eight, which must make for some serious decisions when pondering who will compete each week.
Consider that the Dons won the Division 3-4-5 Team Sweepstakes title at Mt. SAC with just 57 points, placing all five of their scorers among the top 18. Move on to the National Junior Varsity Division 3-4-5 Sweepstakes and there are the Dons again with all five runners in the top 15, scoring 28 points.
But in August, Geiger was being cautious.
"For one, we knew a freshman, Chiara Bonomi, was coming in," said Geiger who is always cautious when it comes to predicting just how good 9th graders might be before he sees them run. "As it turns out, most races she's been our No. 1, as much as 30 to 45 seconds ahead of the others.
"Secondly, we had a sophomore, Xani Pena, who ran the hurdles in track and while we knew she was a good athlete, we didn't know about cross country.
"Xani ended up being our No.1 runner at Mt. SAC and she has surpassed all expectations."
Pena placed fifth in 18:30, a step in front of one of only three seniors on the whole roster, Lexi Arambulo, who ran 18:31. Junior Keira Rall (18:47) was 13th overall, Bonomi was 15th in 18:50 and sophomore Scarlett Martin wrapped up the scoring in 18th at 19:01.
That's five runners separated by 31 seconds, made only more impressive by the fact Bonomi was under the weather. Had she sat out this meet and everyone ran as they did, senior Sophia Kisir (19:28 in 29th) would have still handed the Dons the team title over fellow San Diego state meet contender in Division IV, Sage Creek, which scored 97 points.
Here are the eight runners who will try to hand Cathedral Catholic, one of the most consistent Top 10 teams in the state over the past decade and a half, their first official team crown.
Bonomi - "Chiara came from Los Gatos and she can be way better," said Geiger. "Our 1-5 gap of 15 to 30 seconds could be closer to a minute or two."
Amabulo - "She has been with us all four years," said Geiger. "As a senior, she is very steady."
Pena - "She is running cross country for the first time and has surpassed all expectations. I don't know how much she'll help the hurdle crew in track but she's helping us."
Martin - "As a freshman she ran cross country and track for us and has steadily improved."
Rall - "Conversely, Keira is making slow, steady progress. I think working out with this group has really helped her get better. She brings real synergy."
Kisir - "She's another senior and there isn't much difference between 6-7-8."
Elaine Hobrock, a junior - "She runs everything from 200 to 800 in track and comes from a running family."
Madelyne Basinet - "She won the JV race (20:14) and I felt a little guilty because she didn't belong there. But we could only enter seven runners. She's the reason that if something goes wrong with our top seven, I'm not as concerned as some coaches."
Geiger would be the last coach to assume anything, especially the possibility of his team rolling to the title with a push from within and without.
"Del Oro, with Riley Chamberlain (two-time Division III individual champion), could go 1-2 on us," said Geiger, noting that Chamberlain's sophomore sister Karissa is running well and another 18:30 runner, Isabel Anglero, could even make it 1-2-3.
"If we can put our five before their No. 3, that will be hard to beat."
Campolindo won the Division III team title at the 2019 State Meet with 74 points. Cathedral Catholic was second with 154. The latest MileSplitCA statewide rankings lists Cathedral Catholic No. 1, Del Oro No. 2 and Campolindo No. 3.
Cathedral Catholic beat Del Oro at Woodbridge but it didn't appear the Golden Eagles brought their A team. Campolindo has not taken the line against either team yet this fall.
Geiger said just winning the section title could be a challenge with La Costa Canyon (MileSplitCA ranked No. 5), always a powerful post-season team, in the mix. The good news is because of teams like the Dons and LCC, four San Diego teams are guaranteed to advance to the State Meet.
Actually, Geiger sees a real surge of talent in San Diego, one that he thinks could get the section back its third Division I team after this season.
"Look at Mt. SAC, where we were third overall," said Geiger. "Torrey Pines (fifth without No. 1 Annika Salz) is the best team in our section and when they get completely healthy, look out. Del Norte (seventh) is getting better and better and don't overlook Sage Creek (two-time D4 defending champions who were 8th) and a very young Poway team (11th overall).
"Our goals are league, section, and state podium, with the emphasis on the state. We want to be No. 1, and it's all up to our runners, and I have a lot of confidence in them."
Steve Brand is a freelance writer and regular contributor to MileSplitCA
Photos by Matt Ebiner, Phil Grooms and Jeffrey Parenti