AZUSA -- The largest distance-only meet assembled in Southern California, the Meet of Champions will be once again held at Azusa Pacific University! Snuggled up against the San Gabriel Mountains, over 2,500 athletes will converge on the quaint venue that has become synonymous with some of the fastest times in distance running in the nation - from the prep level up to the elites!
Meet director Tim O'Rourke has expanded the number of heats (and depth) of the nighttime invitational session which will be contested Saturday night under the lights on the APU campus! With 700 more entries than ever before, the meet looks to reclaim the 'world record' for the most boys to break 5:00 for the 1600 meters and expand upon the most girls to break 6:00.
(A record shattered last weekend on the boys' side at the nation's largest distance-only meet, the Dublin Distance Fiesta, where 411 boys ran under 5 minutes. The girl's record of 268 survived Dublin by just six competitors.)
The recent storms have cleared out and Saturday's conditions now project to be in the mid-50s and low-60s all throughout - expect ideal weather for these athletes! Almost 15 hours on consecutive distance races - what could be better?
Here's a closer look at the evening elite session races.
Do not be surprised to see a sub-2:17 performance to win this one, despite it being the seeded section! Taylor DeBarros, the Canyon - Anaheim (SS) senior makes her debut after running 2:17.07 a year ago for Brea Olinda (SS) while Laguna Beach (SS) junior Anoua Carrie ran 2:16.55 last year. In regards to top times for 2023, that claim goes to Beaumont (SS) sophomore Hannah Butterfield who rolled out a 2:18.02 earlier in the month while Dana Hills (SS) junior Paige Scheer unleashed her own 2:18.21 effort. Meanwhile, also watch for JSerra (SS) frosh Summer Wilson, who is coming off a 2:19.23 clocking two weeks ago but owns a lifetime best of 2:17.69. The rest of the field is littered with sub-2:20 performers!
In regard to the early season-best outdoor marks, JSerra junior Georgia Jeanneret comes in with the top mark with her wire-to-wire victory at the Sound Running elite meet at 2:11.91. La Costa Canyon (SD) senior Sophia Biesinger is coming in hot off her 2:13.55 winning effort last weekend. While Anastasia Snodgrass, the senior from JSerra, looks to go after her lifetime best of 2:10.75, Newport Harbor (SS) sophomore Keaton Robar has been on a roll, coming off a 2:14.19 effort two weeks ago. But, do not overlook Palo Alto (CC) senior Hillary Studdert, who blazed to a 2:10.41 in 2022 and is primed to dictate the pace here!
Equipped with the top credentials, Santiago - Corona (SS) senior Dylan Deloyola comes in off a delayed start of the season with a 1:57.04 from last weekend. But it was here a year ago that he posted his lifetime best of 1:53.90. Redondo (SS) senior Ryder Want is coming off a 1:57.84 with an overall best of 1:56.92. Also watch for Chadwick (SS) senior Josh Thomas, who rolled to a 1:57.78 two weeks in his league cluster meet. Making the trip down from up north, Homestead (CC) junior Carter Oates crossed in 1:58.49 earlier this month but do not overlook the Redondo sophomore (bypassing the F/S division here) Adam Divinity who placed third with a 1:57.29 at the Redondo Nike Track Festival. A loaded field indeed - everybody else entered has gone under 1:59!
Meet record: Colin Sahlman (Newbury Park/SS) 1:48.84, 2022
Six of the top nine boys in California will lace it up for this one, including the favorite, Aaron Sahlman of Newbury Park. Equipped with a lifetime best of 1:48.91 from last year's meet, he motored to a 1:50.25 several weeks ago after blazing out to a 52.1 opening lap! Runner-up to his brother Colin a year ago, Sahlman's greatest challenge will come from a pair of juniors in Cathedral's Ambodai Ligons (1:53.38) and Long Beach Poly's Xai Ricks (1:53.91). Ligons matched up with Sahlman earlier, trailing on the aggressive opening lap, whereas Ricks (47.74 for the 400m) went unmatched last weekend in his sub-1:54 effort. Meanwhile, do not overlook Buchanan (CS) senior Noah Ray, who has rolled to a lifetime best of 1:52.66 while Great Oak (SS) junior, Gabriel Rodriguez (also in that Sahlman-driven race from earlier in the season) roared to a 1:54.19 along with Loyola (SS) senior Harrison Lavery (1:54.40). Palos Verdes (SS) junior Alex Naehu is coming off a 1:55.32 performance last weekend while a sleeper here could very well be Cathedral (SS) senior Santiago Orozco (1:57.02) who captured the Redondo Invite two weekends ago.
The field is so loaded in the Invite Section they are also converting this section to the mile, as opposed to the 1600 meters! Several girls with sub-5:00 credentials did not even make it as we anticipate the winner of the seeded section to break through the line of demarcation! Several have crossed in under 5:04 in recent weeks including Buchanan senior Sydney Sundgren (5:00.86). Arcadia (SS) junior Reena Hsieh (5:01.84) and Peninsula (SS) and the University of Texas-bound senior, Aishling Callanan (5:02.90) and senior Caroline Mendyk (5:03.02) of Buchanan. Callanan endured an injury-filled cross country season and looks to go after her 4:53.87 lifetime best. Losing most of her 2022 season to injuries, Santiago - Corona (SS) sophomore Rylee Blade is set to break 5:00 after 5:03.66 two weeks ago and a sub-10:40 performance in the 3200 meters last weekend. But, perhaps the one to watch was the 1500-meter champion (4:29.45) from the Winter Championships in Etiwanda (SS) senior Janelle Avilez. With only a 5:10.07 on her resume for the 1600 meters, that performance equates to a sub-4:50 performance!
Meet Record: Dalia Frias (Mira Costa) 4:35.06, 2022 (4:33.54 thru 1600m)
No doubt many will come to see if Ventura (SS) sophomore Sadie Engelhardt, who will look to establish a new meet record. Flashing back to last year, it was Mira Costa's Dalia Frias that outkicked Engelhardt to the line and a then, California state record for the event. As evidenced by her 9:51.49 romp over 3200 meters three weeks ago and her 4:38.65 victory at the New Balance Nationals Indoor two weeks ago in Boston, Engelhardt is ready to give it a go! But the rest of the field is absolutely loaded as everyone else comes in with sub-4:58 lifetime performances! A State Meet medalist in 2022 with a 4:47.07 effort, Buchanan (CS) senior Grace Hutchison, bound for BYU, is coming off a 4:54.07 last weekend. In that same State Meet race, her now-sophomore teammate, Sierra Cornett, placed seventh with a 4:48.80 effort as a freshman. Dana Hills senior Allura Markow has been on fire the past two months, as the Oregon-bound senior captured the Sound Running meet with a best of 4:48.95. The 2022 Central Section Masters champion, junior Mia Torrecillas of Highland (CS) will also lace it up with a lifetime best of 4:50.51. Oaks Christian (SS) junior Payton Godsey (4:51.14 best for the mile) will look to ride the vapor of those opening laps with the intent of breaking 4:50 as well.
Others to watch for include junior Gioana Lopizzo (4:53.17) of La Costa Canyon (SD), JSerra sophomore Brynn Garcia (4:54.69), while Dana Hills sophomore Annie Ivarsson has shown great improvement with a 4:56.87 earlier this month. While those three efforts came in the 1600 meters, also watch for the duo from Newbury Park as UCLA-bound senior Ailish Hawkins (4:55.42) and sophomore Tiffany Sax (4:55.58) placed fifth and sixth, respectively, here for the mile in 2022.
Chadwick (SS) senior Josh Thomas comes in with the top lifetime best of 4:16.68, but the field is primed to push the throttled under 4:15 here! The Saugus (SS) senior duo of Jacob Fredericks and Dion Gavin have elevated their resumes this past several months while fans want to also watch for 2022 CIF-SS Masters Meet qualifier, Emmanuel Wallace (4:18.07 in placing fourth in Div. 2) to also be up front as well. Moving into another zone this past cross country season, we also see Long Beach Poly (SS) senior Cameron Rhone to easily improve upon his lifetime best of 4:20.33. Luke Metcalf, the vastly improved junior from St. Francis (SS), comes in hot after his 4:19.66 victory at the Redondo Invite two weeks ago while also keeping your eyes on Loyola senior Henry Payne, who improved by almost 18-seconds with his 4:19.71 several weeks ago.
Meet Record: Leo Young (Newbury Park) 2022, 4:00.77, 2022 (3:59.32 for 1600m)
Newbury Park senior Brayden Seymour comes in with the top time of 2023 with his 4:09.33 performance from three weeks ago. But, he has company - Clovis (CS) and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo-bound senior Chris Caudillo is back after capturing the State title in 2022! He placed third here a year ago with a 4:05.32 for the mile and has his eyes on that coveted 4:00-minute mile down the road this season! In that State Meet race, Royal (SS) senior Jonah Bazerkanian earned the bronze with his lifetime best of 4:11.89.
Cathedral junior Emmanuel Hernandez makes his debut for the 2023 season but coming off a breakout season in Cross Country where he motored to a 14:52 on the Mt. SAC course. Meanwhile, another 'breakout' star comes in the form of San Marino (SS) senior Benjamin Hughes, who crossed with a 4:14.88 last weekend. Others trying to go under 4:10 for the mile that we see towards the front also include Ventura junior Anthony Fast Horse (4:13.41 two weeks ago) and Torrey Pines (SD) senior Ryan Thomas (4:15.21 two weeks ago). Menlo (CC) and Cal-bound senior Justin Pretre opens up his season for the event after his 1:53.68 best for the 800 meters last weekend.
But, is he close to the front group, with one lap to go - keep your eyes pegged on Dana Hills sophomore Evan Noonan who unleashed a 56-second closing lap in his 9:08 performance in the 3200 meters last week. With a 4:17.21 from several weeks ago, he has already improved by 16 seconds from 2022.
GIRLS 3200 - SEEDED SECTION (9:00 pm)
As we saw in 2022, it will take a sub-11-minute performance to win this seeded race! Beverly Hills (SS) senior Danielle Hollander will keep the pace brisk and honest in that first half as she comes in with a lifetime best of 10:59.41. Torrey Pines junior Scarlett Taylor (10:54.96 lifetime best) presents the San Diego section here.
Transferring from Peninsula, where she ran 18:05 for the Mt. SAC Cross Country course this past fall, junior Makenzie Kordic, now at Palos Verdes (SS), will bring her talent to the oval while Bishop Amat (SS) senior Emma Arredondo was a CIF-Div. 3 finalist in 2022 with a best of 11:12.47. Equipped with the parented Mira Costa negative split prowess, watch for senior Heather Jensen (11:03.67 best) to move up through the crowd in the second half of the race. It took a sub-11:30 to break into this talented field!
Meet Record: Claudia Lane (Malibu) 10:12.21, 2017
Just how many girls will dip under that 11:00-minute benchmark? That is THE goal of every girl entered here but up front, expect Claremont (SS) junior Denise Chen (10:41.44 lifetime best) to charge the group through the first half of the race along with Buchanan's Kynzlee Buckley. The talented freshman makes her prep debut in the event but is coming off a tremendous cross country season that yielded a 17:36 best over the 5K Woodward Park course. But, as the race matriculates, watch for the gold Mira Costa kit of senior Anna Chittenden as she is as good as it gets in late-race surges. As a State Meet scorer in 2022, she toes the line with a best of 10:37.50.
The La Canada duo of sophomore Maya DeBrouwer and freshman Charlotte Hopkins both look to stay with the pace while also watch for Highland (CS) senior Lianna Guerra, who comes in with her 10:55.55 lifetime best. JSerra freshman Kaylah Tasser is one of the top ninth-graders in California and has already run 11:01.24 while Redondo Union junior Lyla Fedio is coming in strong with an 11:03.59 from two weeks ago and a new 5:05.69 best from last weekend.
Bishop Amat junior Sophia Ebiner is coming off an 11:07.10 best from the Redondo Invite two weeks ago while vastly improved Aubrey Eaton placed right behind her at 11:08.32. Portola (SS) sophomore Sophie Guilfoile ran to a lifetime best of 11:14.69 last weekend while Warren (SS) senior Michelle Huerta will work to improve upon her 11:04.59 lifetime best from this same week in 2022.
BOYS 3200 - SEEDED SECTION (9:37 pm)
Can we possibly see a repeat of 2022 where the winning time was under 9:10 and five under 9:20? La Costa Canyon senior Jacob Niednagel comes in with the top time in 2023 with a 9:17.26 from last weekend. Hart (SS) senior Paul Mangione comes in with a seasonal best of 9:22.80 while Madera South (CS) senior Adrian Hipolito is coming off a 9:23.15 effort from last weekend.
One of the most improved sophomores in California is Great Oak's Westin Brown. A 4:47/10:12 talent as a freshman in 2022 is coming in hot off a 4:15.69 performance last weekend, a week after winning the frosh/soph title at the Redondo Invite with a 9:26.23. Others to look out for include Redondo Union senior Aaron Thomas (9:23.18), St. John Bosco (SS) junior Aiden Aldana (9:24.96), and Ventura junior Henry Hammel (9:26.90)
A sleeper perhaps could very well be San Clemente senior Juan Chantaca. Equipped with late-race fireworks, he rolled to a 14:55 on the Mt. SAC Cross country course and possesses sub-9:15 talent.
The entire field is full of sub-9:30 resumes - do not be surprised to see 6-8 boys break 9:20 here!
Meet Record: Ryan Hall (Big Bear) 8:55.90, 2001
With just the right pacing and the group coming through at 4:30 and ready to unleash a negative-split affair, that oldest meet record may be in jeopardy! Our top returner is Clovis East (CS) junior Carter Spradling, who surprisingly placed second with a 9:01.14 last year before placing tenth at the state meet. But, based on the past cross country season, Highland (SS) senior Matthew Donis is ready to improve upon his 9:02.49 from this third-place finish at the CIF-SS Masters Meet in 2022. He moved into another stratosphere last November by capturing the Division I state title and blazing the Mt. SAC course with a 14:35.0!
In regard to 2023 marks, Crescenta Valley (SS) senior Parker Simmons ran his lifetime best of 9:07.88, finishing just behind West Ranch (SS) senior Bille Issa at the Redondo Invite two weeks ago. Issa advanced to the state meet in 2022 with a 9:02.59 best. But those seniors will have to also watch for Menlo sophomore Landon Pretre, who impressed with a 9:07.06 performance last weekend. Royal senior Noah de la Rionda also comes in strong with his 9:07.16 lifetime best from three weeks ago.
Newbury Park junior Dev Doshi (9:02.27 lifetime best) will also push the pace along with Royal senior Jonah Bazerkanian (9:04.65) and Great Oak senior Ramses Cortes (9:04.82). Palo Alto (CC) junior Grant Morgenfeld was a state meet finalist in the 3200 meters in 2022 with a best of 9:08.39 and kicked off the season with his victory in the Winter Championships with 8:32.30 for 3000 meters.
Mark Gardner is teacher, former coach, popular announcer and a regular contributor to MileSplit
Photos by Daniel Hernandez