Two of the longest active title streaks in the state are on the line, a young program hopes to recapture the trophy and teams opting out due to the pandemic highlight what is set to be another exciting year for high school cross country.
Division-II Flagstaff has massive championship streaks on the line. D-III Coconino continues to build on its youth. D-IV Northland Prep has hopes of recapturing its title-winning ways, while reservation schools not competing drastically changes the landscape.
Here's a look at each team here in Flagstaff and what each expects this season:
It’s tough to count out the Eagles cross country program.
The boys and girls combined have been one of the most dominant programs -- maybe the most dominant -- in the state in recent memory with a combined 10 titles in the past five years. The boys and girls are each hoping to continue ridiculous five-title streaks and likely have the talent to do so again.
Aside from the D-I Desert Vista boys team, the historic Hopi boys squad and the Page boys of the early 2010s, no one else can really compare in recent memory to what the Eagles have done in the D-II ranks.
So, how do the Eagles keep it up?
Even head coach Trina Painter is a bit unsure.
“I don’t have an answer for that,” Painter said in a Saturday phone interview. “Every year for me is new and fresh. While we know there is a history behind the team, these are all new kids -- it’s a whole new season. It’s obviously a whole different ballgame this year. I think our focus is just to stay healthy, give the kids an opportunity and allow them to perform if they are ready. We are just grateful, especially this year, to get together as a group and train.”
While this year will be odd, everyone across the state is facing the same issue. Meets will look different with various health precautions because of COVID-19 and Painter noted the challenge of finding the right venues for meets.
While the top girls runner for the Eagles -- and the entire D-II -- Hana Hall has graduated, her sister Mia Hall should slot in nicely near the top of the lineup after taking third at states as a freshman. Allie Thurgood, who finished sixth behind the two, will fill in right behind as a formidable duo for Painter’s team. The boys return last year’s third-place runner Max Davis along with junior Lance Harris, who landed in 14th for the Eagles' loaded 2019 squad.
As for the depth of her runners, Painter noted some on each side that should fill out the rest of the lineup and play a big role this year.
“Brooke Golightly has had a tremendous summer,” Painter said. “Now that she has a season of understanding under her belt, she is very motivated and is running strong.”
On the boys side of things, Ryan Hatch was having a good start to track before the season was canceled.
“Ryan was so fit during track season right before it was canceled, and I’m sure it was extremely disappointing for him because he was super strong,” Painter said. “I expect him to come back with just a strong year.”
A young team is getting a bit more experienced on the girls side for the Panthers, while the boys are a small group that still hopes to fight.
Wheaten Smith, now a sophomore, had a stellar freshman season for the Panthers, finishing 12th at the Division-III state championships meet to lead a young group to an eighth-place finish.
She took 12th in 20:08.42 and was one of five freshmen to finish in the top 12 at the D-III level. While the team lost steady senior Kaelynn Ashley -- who finished just behind Smith in 14th -- head coach Shannon Taylor thinks her young group is ready, especially after losing out on the track season that was canceled.
“They were so excited in June when we could start with stage one practices,” Taylor said. “ … It’s been really tough and I feel really bad for my seniors who were on the team that missed track and couldn’t finish their senior year. … A lot of these kids had track taken away from them and they want to compete and I want to see them compete each week."
The boys didn’t qualify for states a season ago, and could be on the outside looking in again. The Panthers have just five boys right now, leaving some unknowns despite some experienced returners.
Taylor noted how excited her team was to start getting in some practice time during the summer and is eager for competitions -- even if there lies a new challenge in finding those competitions. Because the pandemic is still very much active, big meets are a toss-up in some areas, leaving Taylor hoping she can find some that work best for her team.
Changes due to reservation schools opting out of the fall could also drastically change the competition in the D-III.
Northland Prep Spartans
Much like D-III, D-IV will look way different because of the potential loss of schools.
Defending girls champ St. Michael Indian School is out along with Ganado, which came down from D-III after placing third at states was expected to challenge the top of the division. On the boys side perennial power Hopi is gone, leaving Northland Prep with some confidence that it can make a splash with the new-look division.
“Without St. Michael and Ganado, among others, they were the only teams on paper that were stronger than us,” Spartans head coach Carl Perry said of the girls side of the program. “ … Even with three of our top runners returning, we can challenge for a state title.”
On the boys side, a team that underachieved will challenge the Spartans in what is expected to be a tight race for the D-IV crown.
“Veritas Prep will be the team to beat and I hope we can beat them,” Perry said. “Hopi, the other team to beat, is not running.”
The boys finished third a year ago at state behind Hopi and champion North Phoenix Prep. On the girls side the Spartans landed in fourth behind Many Farms -- which is also out of competition for now -- in third, Glendale Prep in second and champion St. Michael.
The Spartan boys hope to get back to their title-winning ways that they experienced under former head coach Missy Acker, who is back after a sabbatical as an assistant coach, while the girls could contend despite some key transfers.
The girls were paced by a young group, led by top returner Abby Sperl. A year ago she took 21st at states, which at the time her head coach thought was just a rough outing for her. Instead, it was later discovered she was running on a stress fracture.
That grit to run through such an injury gives Perry hope that she can help lead the girls, which sit at just 10 athletes, to their first title since 2017.
On the boys side of things, Dana Leib-Perry leads a group that is ready to prove it can get the trophy back. The Spartans graduated two of their top finishers but Leib-Perry, who finished seventh at states, should be a solid top runner along with Malakaii Hanson, who took 22nd.
“The rest of the team will be interesting,” Perry said, adding the rest of the group should be strong but they are hoping to add depth.
The Basis Yeti boys finished eighth at the D-IV state meet a year ago, and are expected to return their top runner.
Colm Cawood, who placed 31st at states last year, is expected to be the top runner for the Yeti again. Brian Hoftstetter, Noah Smith and Brady Spinti will slot in the rest of the Yeti pack.
Out of the running, for now
The D-III Page boys Sand Devils won’t get the chance to defend their six straight titles as the school is one of many around the reservation that won’t compete in any fall sports.
Reigning D-IV girls champ St. Michael Indian School won’t be racing either, as noted above.
The AIA will allow teams to return at any point in the season and waived the invitational requirement to qualify for states that had been in place. It is unclear just what will happen -- if any of the teams that are out decide to run or not.
All four local teams will compete at Buffalo Park next Saturday. It isn't the City Meet, rather a replacement for the Four Peaks Invite that can't happen this year. The actual City Meet is slated for October.
Fans are not allowed to attend per heath regulations.
The runners will start in staggered groups at 7 a.m. and will have precautions such as masks and social distancing when not racing.
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