Depth boosts Vaqueros' title hopes

A strong 1-2 punch has kept the Glendale Community College men's cross-country team in the thick of the chase for Western State Conference, Southern California and state titles over the past several seasons, whether it was Frankie Quijada and Jonathan Alpizar leading the squad to third in state two years ago or Rico Gutierrez and Ricky Avila pacing last year's squad to sixth place.

This season will see that trend continue, as the Vaqueros will have another strong combo at the front of the pack in sophomore captain Alec Nelson and freshman Mizrael Mendez. But the difference-maker this year, according to Coach Eddie Lopez, is a new level of depth up and down the roster.

"With the talent we have — and we've got to stay healthy — we're very strong," said Lopez, whose team kicked off the season on Saturday in the Fullerton Invitational. "We have the talent where we're like 12-deep. One guy has a bad race, other guys can pick it up and that's good insurance. It takes the pressure off."

Nelson, the son of Glendale college Hall of Fame runner Jeff Nelson, is the top holdover from the team that won its second straight conference title last year before placing sixth in SoCal. Leading the incoming class is Mendez out of CIF state-qualifier Birmingham High, who clocked a 15 minutes 3 seconds at the CIF state meet at Woodward Park last year.

"He's a blue-chipper, he was the best [high school] cross-country runner in the area last year," Lopez said of Mendez. "He's an excellent runner."

Also returning is Jesus Gutierrez, who ran a 15:35 at College of the Canyons over the summer, Eric Lopez, who also broke 16 minutes at COC, Nick Marquez and half-miler Ramon Robles.

Lopez has drawn from some of the upper-echelon high school programs around the region to assemble a freshman class that includes Birmingham products Isaac Diosdao and Yeltsin Vasquez, Kurt Lutz out of Saugus, Vladimir Diaz from Belmont, 800 meters City Section champion Mario Castillo out of Taft and Santee's Macario Sanchez.

"We have a strong combination of sophomores and freshmen," Lopez said. "This is probably the best recruiting class I've had since my first year (1987). We're strong, we're very deep and we've had a good camp."

The first order of business following the seven regular season meets the Vaqueros will engage in is the conference finals Oct. 25 at Cuesta College, where Lopez projects the top competition to be L.A. Valley and Cuesta.

At the Southern California Championships, held Nov. 4 at Cucamonga-Gusti Park in Ontario, five-time defending champ San Bernardino will be the team to beat along with L.A. Trade Tech and Orange Coast. The state meet, where Lopez tabs American River College as the elite squad, will take place Nov. 19 at Woodward park in Fresno.

"They want to defend their WSC title and we think we can run with the best teams in the state," Lopez said. "[We want to win] conference and then we want to do well at the state meet. We're going to go for it at the state meet."

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