His top recruit from last year has transferred to UCLA and his No. 5 runner has joined the Army, yet Cal State Northridge cross-country Coach Don Strametz claims that the Matador men's team will be stronger than last season.
Northridge, which will open the season in the UC Irvine Invitational on Saturday, placed sixth--nine points out of fourth--in last year's Big Sky Conference championships. Strametz figures the Matadors can move up a couple of spots this season even though highly touted Will Bernaldo is at UCLA and Jesse Barragan is in the Army, married to former Northridge and Thousand Oaks High runner Tara Marsden.
"If we can solidify our fifth-man position, then we'll obviously be stronger than last year," Strametz said.
With senior Oswaldo Servin and juniors Javier Ramirez, John Greene and Mike Balderas returning from last year's team, Strametz has experience. With freshmen Omar Vega and Nick Hamlin, he has talent that should contend for top-five spots.
Servin, Ramirez and Greene rotated among the Matadors' top four runners last year along with Bernaldo, while Balderas was the team's No. 7 runner in the conference championships.
Vega placed fifth in the 1995 state Division III cross-country championships for Nordhoff, but he was ineligible to run last year under the NCAA's Proposition 48 requirements.
Hamlin was hampered by injuries during his senior track season at San Diego Madison High, but he ran 9:30 for 3,200 meters as a junior and has looked like an improved runner in workouts.
"He looked good the other day," Strametz said. "I think he could be a solid fifth runner for us."
With the loss of Bernaldo, runner-up in the 3,200 in the 1996 state track championships for Nordhoff, and Barragan, Northridge will lack depth so avoiding injuries will be imperative.
"Obviously if we get hit by injuries, we're in trouble," Strametz said. "But if we're solid and we run a solid race in the [Big Sky Conference championships], maybe we can be fourth."
A fifth-place finish in the conference championships would be considered quite an accomplishment for the women's team.
The Matadors finished seventh last year and No. 5 runner Marsden, No. 2 Shana Driscoll and No. 4 Ellen Muench will not return.
Driscoll moved back to San Francisco shortly after last cross-country season to attend to family matters and Muench is going to use a redshirt season.
Seniors Jamie Whitmore and Jennifer Overlock and sophomore Jennifer Walters are the only runners back from the top seven of last year.
Junior Andrea Bruins, who redshirted last year because of a tendon injury, should battle Whitmore for the No. 1 spot.
Sophomore Nancy James will run cross-country for the first time after finishing second in the 800 and fifth in the 1,500 in the Big Sky track championships in May.
James and Overlock suffered injuries at the end of track season and might not be in top cross-country form until late in the season.
Northridge could benefit from the talents of Gudrun Suuladottir, but Strametz isn't sure if the Icelander with a best of 2:16 in the 800 will be eligible to compete this season.
In the junior college ranks, Miguel Galindo of Ventura could contend for the men's individual state title, with Moorpark and Glendale contending in the team race.
Galindo, second to Moorpark sophomore Eleazar Hernandez in last year's state championships, has recovered from a knee injury that caused him to miss most of the track season, but Pirate Coach Tuck Mason is wary of labeling him the favorite this year.
"You never know who can come along in the JCs," Mason said.
Jesus Villavicencio and Danny Oliva are the only returning runners from the Moorpark team that gave retiring coach Manny Trevino his first state title last year, but first-year Coach Doni Green still has plenty of talent.
Sophomore Uzziel Gray placed sixth in the 10,000 in the state track championships in May and Rey Coronado from Camarillo High heads a list of incoming freshmen.
Glendale, 1995 state champion, could contend for a title with a mixture of returning runners and talented newcomers.
Julio Serratos, runner-up in the 3,000 steeplechase in the state track championships, heads the group of returnees and Rafael Ramos and Omar Orendain top the newcomers.
Ramos, a 31-year-old Mexican, has been racing on the Southern California road-racing circuit for several years. Orendain was the No. 7 runner for a Pasadena City team that finished second to Moorpark in the state championships.
State individual champion Marisol Barajas and her Mission College teammates were expected to challenge for the state team title after coming up one point short last season, but the school dropped its sports programs in July because of budgetary constraints.
Moorpark could be the top women's team in the region.
The Raiders finished ninth in last year's state championships and three of their top five runners are expected to return, including No. 2 scorer Katie Scherrei.