| Boys - Girls |
Can the cast of sunny Californians fare better along the Pacific Northwest's frigid and soggy landscape than in years past?
Can Jesuit execute an exceptional race-day strategy for a second consecutive year in toppling many of America's higher-ranked teams?
Will the California state meet's pecking order of championship results follow suit one week later?
These questions and several others will be answered this Saturday as the Golden State's elite cross-country teams will take part in the third edition of the Nike Team Nationals extravaganza at Portland Meadows.
Twenty boys teams and an equal number of girls squads are assembled for the featured NTN races -- including three teams in each gender from California -- with the event also hosting an inaugural NTN Open Championship for those registered teams not invited into the main race.
Here are capsular profiles on each of the three California boys teams involved in the NTN race: (Note: Squads are listed by their club-team affiliations, with their high school of attendance listed in parentheses; some CIF sections permit the use of HS affiliations while others do not.)
CALIFORNIA BOYS ENTRIES --
Trabuco XC Club (members attend Trabuco Hills HS): Entering the fall of 2006, this group was identified to have a very fine lead trio that could hold its own with the best in the nation. It was not until the development of a fourth runner became apparent in the opening weeks of the season that the crew became recognized as not only a regional power, but a national force as well. Then at last weekend's state championships, Trabuco Hills pulled the surprise of the meet as a fifth runner enjoyed a personal breakthrough and it provided the difference as the Mustangs upset favored and two-time defending state champion Royal by a tight 71-82 tally.
Trabuco Hills' 77:55 team time at the Woodward Park course was the fastest ever by a California team, bettered only by the Mead HS of Washington 1993 team that fielded four runners timed in 9:08 or faster for 3200m in track. Trabuco Hills has been led in 2006 by siblings J.T. and Riley Sullivan and Scott Blair. That front-running trio could go a long way in aiding the Mustangs in a meet where most teams field impressive depth, often leaving the strongest front-end attack as a critical deciding factor.
This will be the first appearance at NTN for Trabuco XC Club, but the third for an Orange County-based team. In prior appearances, the NTN experience of racing in the "slop" of muddy, swamp-like conditions has not been kind to those beach-area schools. Dana Hills HS, competing as Blue Crush, placed 12th in 2004 and El Toro, competing as Beach Dudes, placed 17th, both in 2004.
Simi West XC Club (Royal HS) -- Projected to win its third consecutive major division state title, Royal set out for an even larger carrot in 2006: Win the NTN Championship. Thus far, however, it has been a bittersweet season for one of the best teams in state history. Major -meet victories at the Woodbridge Invitational, Clovis and Mt. SAC Invitationals were sandwiched around a second-place finish at the Stanford Invitational to a Ferris HS of WA lineup regarded as best in the nation by a majority of astute observers from across the map. But Royal endured a fateful setback along the way as key scorer Danny Benson suffered a hip-related injury. Considered as strong as the #3 team scorer when at his best, Benson returned in time for the state final and gave a game effort to earn a scoring place for the Highlanders, but Trabuco Hills enjoyed a step-up performance to earn the title.
Benson has another week of overland training under his belt (he primarily did cross-training while injured) and Royal is motivated by avenging its state-meet loss. "Like I just told the team after the race," Highlanders coach Ryan Luce said during the weekend, "we can finish second in state and still be first at nationals, so long as we run our best race,"
UCLA-signed senior Michael Cybulski has enjoyed an excellent season, twice finishing second to FootLocker Nationals title contender Chad Hall of Big Bear. Cybulski won the state Division I title last weekend in a thrilling stride-for-stride climax that saw him beat Trabuco Hill's J.T. Sullivan by less than a stride. Senior Hudson Andrews is on a personal tear of late, including a lifetimes-best showing at the section finals. Jun Reichl, one of the heroes during last year's 6th-place NTN showing.
Carmichael/Sacramento XC Club (Jesuit HS) -- The most gleaming tradition in the state hails from the Sacramento area, where Jesuit HS recently garnered its 9th state team title and a second consecutive berth to NTN, albeit via an at-large invitation and in anything but a slam-dunk edge over rival Davis HS. Jesuit, which used a conservative start pace and then moved up well to place 7th at last year's NTN race in very muddy conditions, has a knack for racing its best when the chips were down. That distinction came under fire at last week's state meet, however.
The Marauders enjoyed a great showing by its top three runners to set the table for a historic run along the Woodward Park course, but it was a surprising off day by Jesuit's depth performers -- usually the bread and butter of its attack -- which led them to be challenged for the state title and created ample discussion before it eventually earned an at-large berth.
Jesuit placed 5th in the nation's best field of the season at the Stanford Invitational, placed second to Royal in a very strong effort at the Clovis Invitational, then won the Sac-Joaquin Section and CIF-State Division II Championships. Seniors Phil McKennan and Evan Watchempino are excellent leaders for the Marauders, with Michael Salvatierra also being a key big-meet performer.
Due to either recent injury or lack of depth, neither Trabuco Hills nor Royal can afford to have any scorer endure a bad day. Jesuit, which lacks a national-type frontrunner at this point, must have its pack move up slightly. All three teams are capable of a top-five finish on their own. If all click, California could come away with three teams in the top seven and a few teams on the podium (four teams earn awards). That would be an improvement from last year, when California had two teams place in the top seven.
California runners will also be seeking the two available West Region berths to FootLocker Nationals from the NTN race, with Cybulski, and the Sullivan Bros. being California's leading contenders.
California's three girls teams in the third annual Nike Team Nationals cross-country championships in Portland, Or. might not produce a national team champion, although don't tell that to them, but the race should decide which team is the best team in the state.
Saugus took the Division I title with 71 points and a time of 93:06 at Woodward Park in Fresno. Corona del Mar (Newport Harbor), a sixth place finisher in 2005, won the State Division III title with 50 points and a team time of 93:24. Carondelet (Concord), which garnered an at-large berth, was the Division II winner with 119 points and a time of 94:18.
Saugus and Corona del Mar, despite being both from Southern California never met and are undefeated. Carondelet has just one mid-season loss, that being to Saugus at the Jim Danner Invitational in Oregon. Corona del Mar's best win came at Stanford where the Sea Kings won the Sweepstakes race by almost three minutes. Saugus' best wins have been at the Mt. Sac Invitational, where it won the Sweepstakes race, and the State meet. Carondelet had it's best performance at the State meet.
Saugus and Corona del Mar are almost mirror images of one another based on the State results. Saugus' Shannon Murakami at 17:58 and Corona del Mar's Sarah Cummings, at 17:52, are both front runners. Corona del Mar's 2-3 have a slight edge over Saugus while Saugus has a slight advantage in the 4-5 slots.
Although Saugus and Corona del Mar were favorites to make NTN since early in the season, Carondelet maintained a low profile until they finished a strong third to Saugus at Jim Danner and a solid run at State. The Cougars are led by freshmen Nicole Hood and Heather Cerney and sophomores Sara Aliotti and Kellie Houser.
Intangables include the course (actually the inside of a horse race track), which is basically flat with a series of small artificial hills. In addition, there is a fair chance that the course could be very muddy. It has been raining almost daily for the last 40 days, although the forcast is for no rain on Friday and Saturday. The fact that Corona del Mar has six of seven runners back from last years team could turn out to be a significant advantage.