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Cross-Country Season Preview: La Cañada aims to challenge top spot in league

Photo Gallery: La Canada High cross country teams take second in league finals
La Cañada High’s Ellaney Matarese won the Rio Hondo League individual championship last season.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

The La Cañada High cross-country teams have plenty to look forward to this upcoming season.

On top of qualifying for the CIF Southern Section Division IV Cross-Country Championships, the Spartans boys’ team looks to kick South Pasadena out of the top of the Rio Hondo League, while the girls look to regain their title from the Tigers after both teams finished runner-up in the league finals in 2018.

Where the teams lacked depth last season, a promising core of runners from the freshman-sophomore ranks will fill the gaps left on by graduating runners.

Both Flintridge Prep squads, along with Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy and St. Francis, all qualified for the postseason in 2018 and will look to make return appearances in November.

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Each team will have its share of talented runners looking to achieve team and individual success.

Here is a closer look at the teams.

LA CAÑADA

Coach Andy Di Conti said the Spartans have a chance to challenge South Pasadena in the Rio Hondo League.

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“We’re kind of a young team after the top three, top four runners,” Di Conti said. “We’re young, but I like that. I like going to the youth for the varsity because that just means we’re going to get better. I really like this group of runners. They’re enthusiastic and we have some good leadership on the team.

“I know South Pasadena lost a lot of guys. A lot of seniors graduated, but their program is at the point where it’s sort of like a machine now. I’m never going to count them out.”

Though La Cañada lost Owen Serrichio to graduation, the boys’ team will have key returners in seniors Sheldon Watanabe and Max Bohan Apfeldorf, along with juniors Jaden Milbrodt and Max Fan.

“We definitely lost a big hitter with Owen Serrichio on the boys’ side,” Di Conti said. “I had my concerns early in the summer wondering what we’re going to look like, but I saw some really strong work ethic this summer. I’m really hopeful. I’m not going to say we’re going to win league, but we’re going to go for it.

“My guys are motivated. They’re focused. They’re goal-oriented. We’ll see how the miles they run translate through the season.”

Three of the Spartans’ frosh-soph runners will be key additions to the varsity team, with sophomore pair George Branda and Ethan Lee and junior Marko Jobanovich looking to make an impact.

Freshman Max Smith looks to make a name for himself on the team after his times left Di Conti impressed.

“He worked so hard this summer,” Di Conti said. “He’s been so consistent and has shown his discipline. He’s been running with the older guys all summer. I was worried he was running too much, but he looks durable.”

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For the girls, the Spartans will try to pry the league title out of the Tigers’ claws.

“I think we’re going to give South Pasadena a run for their money. No pun intended,” Di Conti said.

Last season, the team’s depth played a large part in its success, with a slight drop-off from the third runner to the fourth. A number of injuries further depleted the squad.

“After third, it was a full two minutes,” Di Conti said. “There’s going to be a lot of opponents filling up that gap. That’s where we fell short. I don’t see that happening this year. I see our ninth-grade girls helping out.”

A team of freshmen will dictate the make-up of the team, with senior Sarah Auther and junior Ellaney Matarese leading the way in the top two spots. Matarese qualified for the CIF Cross-Country State Championships last season, finishing 57th in 19 minutes, 39.1 seconds in Division IV.

Sophomores Jenna Milbrodt and Sophia Ponce will bring added experience to the team, with the latter, Di Conti said, being an integral part.

“She’s made a huge jump in her performance,” said Di Conti of Ponce. “She’s run about 400 miles this summer. I like her example. Her work ethic is outstanding. I need those kind of runners.”

A trio of freshmen round out the top seven runners for the Spartans, with Catherine Mispagel, Ria Mandal and Caitlin Roehmholdt.

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“They’ve looked good this summer,” Di Conti said. “It’s going to help. Our depth last year for the girls, we kind of fell off considerably. They’re athletes. They’re not just runners. You can count on them to be athletic and competitive, which excites me.”

Di Conti hopes his teams will qualify for the CIF Southern Section Division IV Championships and send a few individuals to the state championship.

“I don’t want to predict the future too much because this is a building team, although I like what I see so far,” Di Conti said. “I tell them they have the potential to beat South Pasadena. I tell them that, but that’s as far as I’ll go.”

FLINTRIDGE PREP

Expectations will continue to be high for the Rebels, who have a storied tradition. Though the Rebels will look to continue to dominate in the Prep League and potentially beyond, both squads are ready to make their move having outlined their goals.

The girls’ squad, ranked No. 5 in the CIF Southern Section Division V preseason poll, won the league title before taking second in the Division V finals and third in the Division V state finals last season. Flintridge Prep had won the previous four state crowns in Fresno.

Flintridge Prep will return several key runners, including seniors Liara Morrissey and Natalie Bax and junior Katie Bennett. In last year’s state competition, Morrissey finished 35th in 20:05.1 and Katie Bennett was 158th in 23:27.5 in Division V.

“I think it will be a fun team to watch,” Flintridge Prep coach Jill Henry said. “I have no idea what will happen, but we have a couple of key returners and there are others who have been waiting in the wings to join the team and keep the program heading in the right direction.

“They’ve been putting in the miles. It will be about running in tight packs and trying to drop their times.”

For the boys’ squad, ranked No. 4 in the Division V preseason poll, coach Scott Jung and the Rebels have captured 21 of the last 22 league titles. Flintridge Prep placed second in the Division V finals and sixth in the Division V state meet in 2018.

The Rebels will boast returners Bennett Oakes, Hudson Billick, Nolan Costin and Rudy Ruiz, all of whom are juniors. At the 2018 state meet, Oakes took 20th in 16:38.4 and Hudson Billick secured 53rd in 17:20.7.

“We have a good group in place, though our depth isn’t as great as I’d like it to be, so we’ll have to find a way to stay healthy,” Jung said. “There will be other runners who have some experience and others who will look to move up to the varsity level.

“I expect our division to be very tough again and we’ll do our best and see what happens.”

FLINTRIDGE SACRED HEART ACADEMY

The Tologs will look vastly different after finishing second in the Mission League last season behind power Harvard-Westlake.

Flintridge Sacred Heart, which won the league title in 2017, will bring back seniors Lauren Nettels and Chase Hayes and junior Alexandra Christodoulou in its quest to earn a return trip to the postseason.

The Tologs took 12th in the CIF Southern Section Division IV finals last season with a 10th-place finish in 18:10.6. She clocked 19:17.1 to place 36th at the state race.

“Lauren will provide us with leadership,” Flintridge Sacred Heart coach Kirk Nishiyama said. “She got a good taste last year regarding what it’s like to compete at a higher level.

“We’ll be looking to fill some spots in our lineup, so it’s an opportunity for the freshmen to develop and try to earn a spot in the lineup.”

ST. FRANCIS

Things appear to be quite promising for the Golden Knights, who return virtually their entire lineup after qualifying for the playoffs last season for the first time since 2011.

St. Francis placed fourth in the rugged Mission League before finishing 21st in the CIF Southern Section Division IV finals last season.

With an experienced and confident core in tact, St. Francis coach Pat Donovan said the Golden Knights are ready to ascend and surpass last year’s accomplishments.

“We’re in a very nice position,” Donovan said. “It’s a blessing to have everybody back and we are more experienced. They’ve been putting in the work.

“We are hoping to move up in league, at least one or even two spots. Lets see where the chips fall.”

St. Francis’ lineup will include seniors Stuart Serventi and Jason Suh, juniors Brady McNulty, Lars Martin, Gabriel Paz and Mark Polenzani and sophomore Tim Parisi.


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