With its thick grass that slows runners during the first 150 meters, one hill made of dirt and the other made of asphalt, the three-mile course at Irvine Regional Park in Orange will prepare local cross country runners for the CIF Southern Section meet.
Leading up to the divisional preliminaries Nov. 12 at Mt. San Antonio College — where huge hills with its own names are the norm — Saturday's Orange County Cross Country Championships could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship between runner and tougher course.
The Corona del Mar High girls' cross country team, ranked No. 2 in CIF Division III, and the CdM boys' team will look to step up to the challenge. Costa Mesa, Newport Harbor, Estancia and Sage Hill are also aiming for top-10 glory.
"It's a fun course, but it's a little tougher," said Bill Sumner, the longtime Sea Kings' coach. "Last year we finished fourth in the state meet. This year, we're still trying to find our way. We probably won't go as hard as last year. We're in the process of getting back to that level. Orange County has been a hotbed for cross country competition this year."
Senior Ashlee Powers, considered one of the top girls runners this season, will be "a factor," according to Sumner. On Sept. 24 at the Stanford Invitational in Palo Alto, Powers finished as the top individual runner from Orange County, sixth with a time of 18 minutes, 16 seconds.
"We won Orange County four times," Sumner said. "We're looking for a top-10 finish this year."
Sumner is also looking for a big day from senior boys' runner Blake Myers, who finished in 15:08 in a cluster meet on Oct. 6. The head coach is also hoping to improve on times of 16:06-16:10 from his five runners behind Myers.
"If we can move them up 30 seconds, we'll be a team to be reckoned with," Sumner said.
Newport Harbor has one of the best runners in the county in Paige Tennison, who finished fifth in 18:06 in the Clovis Invitational. Tennison looks to set the pace in the girls' race.
Costa Mesa also looks to make some noise near the hills of east Orange. The Mustangs grew their boys and girls programs from 20 runners at every level to 35, thanks to visiting physical education classes in between track and cross country seasons and a sports festival on campus, which helped them recruit more runners.
"We were growing the popularity of the sport," Costa Mesa Coach Steve Moreno said. "We'll see if our boys can improve as a team and if the girls can do well in a varsity race."
Senior girls runner Raquel Friedmann, who placed in the top 30 at the CIF meet last season, finished 17th (21:09) in a cluster meet this year at Centennial Park in Santa Ana. The top Costa Mesa girls finisher was Kristi Adams (15th, 20:32).
Robert Blackwell, who is having a "great year" according to Moreno, is among the top seven runners in the Orange Coast League this year so far and finished fourth in the cluster meet (15:44). Sophomore Brett Bermudez (ninth, 16:17) is also a potential factor in the team scoring.
Sage Hill — which has a Lightning girls' team ranked ninth in the CIF Division V rankings and a boys' team ranked No. 10 in CIF Division V, figures to finish with strong results at Irvine Regional Park.
The boys won the Brentwood Invitational Sept. 30 against 19 other small-school teams. According to the school's website, Jack Percival finished sixth, followed by Dylan Thies (seventh), Brennan Hicks (ninth) and Chris Andras (10th).
The girls warmed up by winning the Academy League preview meet on Tuesday, with Sophia Witte (fourth), Brittany Andressoo (seventh) and Caroline Grant (eighth) leading the way.
On Oct. 8 at the Central Park Invitational, Estancia's boys placed 16th overall. Hector Rosete finished 41st. The girls also finished 16th and its top finisher was Mariah Chapin (23rd, 20:09).
9:15 a.m. – Varsity Boys, Division III - Costa Mesa, Sage Hill
9:27 a.m. – Varsity girls, Sweepstakes - Corona del Mar, Newport Harbor
9:39 a.m. – Varsity boys, Division II - Corona Del Mar, Estancia, Newport Harbor
10:18 a.m. – Division III girls - Sage Hill