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High School Cross-Country Preview: Laguna Beach boys open as Division 4 favorite

High School Cross-Country Preview: Laguna Beach boys open as Division 4 favorite
Ryan Smithers (left), seen on Nov. 18, 2017, leads a Laguna Beach boys' cross-country team that starts the year ranked No. 1 in the CIF Southern Section Division 4 poll. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

The 2017 season could have been considered quite the year for the area’s cross-country teams.

Among the local contingent, five teams and two individuals advanced to the 2017 CIF State cross-country championships.

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For cross-country runners, going the distance is always the goal. Those who made it to the season’s final week a year ago will be looking to do it again, albeit some will do so with added pressure.

The Laguna Beach High boys snuck up on the competition last fall. The Breakers entered the CIF Southern Section postseason ranked sixth in Division 4, but closed the gap to take second at CIF finals and sixth at the state meet.

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The Breakers have four seniors in their starting seven in all-CIF State Division IV performer Ryan Smithers, Zachary Falkowski, Cal Nielson and Sebastian Fisher. In addition, Laguna Beach added junior transfer Logan Brooks, who was 17th (16:22.1) in the FHSAA 2A State Championships as a member of Santa Rosa Beach South Walton (FL) as a sophomore.

Laguna Beach will not be surprising anyone this year, as the Breakers have opened as the preseason favorites to win the Division 4 title.

“We got a little bit of a target on the back there,” Breakers boys’ coach Scott Wittkop said. “We kind of had a feeling that we would be ranked pretty high. We didn’t know that we would be No. 1.”

Both of Laguna Beach’s teams made the state meet last year. For the boys, it was their 11th trip to Fresno’s Woodward Park in November in the last 16 years.

The Breakers have several streaks intact. Their boys have gone to 21 consecutive CIF finals, while the girls’ run stands at 18 straight appearances.

Laguna Beach’s girls have also won six straight league finals, although the Breakers have moved into the Sunset Conference’s Wave League. The girls will compete with Edison, Huntington Beach and Newport Harbor.

On the boys’ side, Laguna Beach will square off with Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach and Marina.

Wittkop was initially surprised to find his team in the lower division of the Sunset Conference.

“We’re excited that we get to run against everybody in league finals,” he said. “They’ll split the points up, but we’re excited that we get to run against everybody.”

Sophomore Jessie Rose leads the returners for the Laguna Beach girls. Breakers girls’ coach Steve Lalim said that senior Hannah Konkel has interest from universities to run at the next level.

Corona del Mar also joined the Sunset Conference, but the Sea Kings will be in the Surf League for both genders.

Senior Ian Turner will lead the CdM boys against Edison, Los Alamitos and Newport Harbor, while senior Gigi Lee hopes to help the CdM girls contend against Fountain Valley, Los Alamitos and Marina.

Fountain Valley’s girls look very strong, having opened the season by winning the Riverside Showcase 36-59 over Temecula Chaparral. The Barons are ranked second in Division 1.

Like the Laguna Beach boys, the Fountain Valley girls are also a veteran group with several years of varsity experience. Seniors Ashley Faller (2nd, 13:03.4), Sara Feitz (3rd, 13:08.9), Isabella Guerra (9th, 13:36.0) and Anna Goeller (22nd, 14:04.9) were all in the scoring quintet for the Barons on the abbreviated 2.3-mile Riverside course. Sophomore Julia Svartstrom (7th, 13:33.6) also helped the Barons repeat as Sunset League champions as a freshman.

Speaking of two-time Sunset League champions, Newport Harbor senior Alexis Garcia has won the last two individual league titles on the boys’ side.

Garcia returns as the school record-holder for three-mile courses (14:27.8 at the 2017 Dana Hills Invitational), and he was the first Sailor to reach the podium at state since Newport Harbor’s Division III state championship team in 1992. He has also won back-to-back Daily Pilot Boys’ Cross-Country Runner of the Year honors.

Mia Matsunami, the ace of the Newport Harbor girls, will hope for a healthier senior year.

Costa Mesa’s Diane Molina was the area’s other individual to qualify for state, placing 15th in the Division IV race. Now that Molina is a junior, Mustangs coach Steve Moreno says that he is ready to loosen the leash on the budding star. He said that he plans to put Molina in the sweepstakes races at the Orange County Championships and the Woodbridge and Mt. SAC Invites.

The Costa Mesa boys, led by senior Kevin Cortez, have cracked the Division 4 rankings at No. 10.

Ocean View’s boys’ team advanced to its first state meet last year. The Seahawks, ranked sixth in Division 4, have brought four starters back from that team in seniors Edwin Montes and Jason St. Pierre, junior Miguel Flores and sophomore Parker Walpole.

Sage Hill’s girls’ team, ranked eighth in Division 5, will be looking to build off of its eighth-place finish in the Division V state championship race last year.

Lightning coach Nate Miller said that seniors Luke Nataupsky and Kylen Patel have both drawn some interest from colleges.

Pacifica Christian held its Triton Invitational at Mile Square Park on Thursday. Senior Nicholas Kutscher finished fifth with a time of 17:57.

The Laguna Hills Invitational will take place on Saturday, with competitors participating in grade-level races. Brethren Christian, CdM, Costa Mesa, Edison, Newport Harbor and Ocean View will be at the meet.

Laguna Hills Invitational

Where: Laguna Hills High

When: The meet begins with the Division 3 freshman girls’ race at 7:45 a.m.

Fan info: Parking and admission to the event are both free.

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