Talent in the long run

When La Cañada High's cross-country teams train, they see that South Pasadena, their strongest competition in Rio Hondo League, is never far behind.

Both teams cross into each other's territory, as the Spartans take the Arroyo Seco into Pasadena and the Tigers run it all the way up into La Cañada.

"We see them running up here by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory," said Coach Mike Thatcher, who is in his fourth year with the La Cañada boys' team. "I told the team the best way to defeat South Pasadena is to prepare yourself for CIF-prelims and finals because our league isn't particularly strong."

La Cañada athletes developed several goals as they prepared for the season during the summer at their week-long training camp in Big Bear.

In 2009, both La Cañada's boys' and girls' teams continued their domination of Rio Hondo League. The boys have been league champions for five consecutive years and the girls have won 14 of the last 15 league titles.

The Spartans look to continue their dominance in league this year, but their main goal lies in the postseason. Members of both the boys' and girls' teams hope to qualify for the 2010 CIF State Finals.

"Obviously we want to win league, but our biggest concern is what happens at CIF," Thatcher said. "The postseason is definitely our biggest goal."

The boys' team returns its top runners from three to seven from last year, seniors Adam Skaggs, Andrew Fisher, Erick Lankey, Anton Cwik and junior Brendon Greene. This season, Thatcher wants see them run a tight spread from one to five, having them all finish within 30 seconds of one another.

"We don't have one super-fast runner but we have a solid five, and if they stay healthy and run together, we should be solid," Thatcher said.

Andy DiConti, third-year coach of La Cañada's girls' team, said this year will be a struggle, even in league.

"Potentially, on paper, this could be our strongest team in 10 years," DiConti said. "Despite that, it will still be a battle for that league title because I know how strong South Pasadena is this year."

For the first time since he's coached the Spartans, DiConti feels he has strong roster from which to pull. He's always had four dependable runners to rely on, but that fifth person always seemed to be two minutes behind the rest.

"It really comes down to your fourth and fifth runner," DiConti said. "You can have all the front runners you want, but if you don't have that fourth or fifth girl, you don't have a chance."

This year's starting five are seniors Courtney Schulte and Holly Shreckengast, junior Meghan Fuelling and freshman Anna Frederich and Eloise Dimase-Nordling.

"By the end of the season, I want everyone who runs in our program to feel that sense of accomplishment, where they set a goal and took steps toward that goal and work within the plan we came up with together to get them there," Thatcher said.

La Cañada is just one area school that should have its share of talent this season.

As seems often to be the case, last season ended on a high for the Flintridge Prep boys' cross-country team.

However, the journey to Fresno and a third-place finish in the CIF-State Division V finals was hardly brimming with highlights.

"It was a good way to go out, but it was also a great learning experience," Rebels Coach Ingrid Herskind said.

After 17 straight seasons of winning Prep League titles, Flintridge Prep relinquished its crown to archrival Pasadena Poly and then finished an unRebel-like sixth in the CIF Southern Section divisional finals. But, as has been the case so many times before, the Rebels shined brightest on the biggest stage.

"I think it left us with a much better taste in our mouth," said Herskind of her team's state finish saving the season.

Still, if nothing more, all the change of a year ago served as a wake-up call for the Rebels — the area's only state qualifier.

"It was bound to happen sometime," said Herskind of the league-title streak concluding. "I think we were becoming horribly complacent. As bad as it is to lose, I think it was good for us.

"We're a lot different team now because we don't have that title."

And now the quest begins to reclaim it.

Much of the upcoming boys' cross-country season seems to focus around redemption.

Coach Pat Donovan and St. Francis want to get the Golden Knights back around the top of the Mission League. Like Arcadia in the Pacific League, Loyola is an ultra-dominant force in the Mission League. Though Donovan maintains that his ultimate goal is eventually to unseat the mighty Cubs, for now, being realistic, he's hoping the Knights can climb back into the No. 2 spot after slipping to fourth overall last season and finishing fifth at the league finals.

Leading the way will no doubt be senior All-Area and all-league standout Kyle Pallazolo, with seniors Tyler Kawachi and Danny Velladao and junior Collin Peterson returning from last year's scoring five.

"I think that this team has the talent to regain our spot as the second best team in the Mission League," said Donovan, who will have all three league cluster meets at Crescenta Valley Park this season, as the Mission League changes from its prior format of dual meets. "Ultimately it's up to them to open the door.

"It's really important for us to go in with confidence, as well as tenacity."

Toughness and leadership were likely two intangibles lacking a bit for last year's Rebels.

Herskind believes her returners, such as seniors Jason Bunn, Jessie Redding and Taylor Beith have stepped solidly into leadership roles and the team as a whole is, she says, "definitely much tougher."

On the heels of winning a Prep League 3,200 title and advancing to the CIF Division IV track and field finals in the event, Bunn appears poised to take the reins as the lead runner for the Rebs.

"Jason Bunn has put in an incredible summer," Herskind said.

After that, Redding, Beith and Jake Johnson look to be valuable contributors in a top five that Herskind expects to be flexible throughout the season.

It's a season that Herskind has clearly defined as one in which the Rebels are aspiring to once more become a force in the Prep League and beyond.

"We don't want to be overlooked, our goal is to start getting back into fighting shape," Herskind said. "I want us to start to show we're right back up there."

On the girls' side, Flintridge Prep saw an eight-season mark of state ascension fall by the wayside, and for Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, the follow-up to its best-ever fifth-place mark in state was a disappointing ninth place in the CIF Southern Section Division IV finals.

It seems as if 2010 is a season of rebounding and rebuilding.

For both Prep and Sacred Heart, uphill battles loom ahead with state heavyweights leading their leagues.

Sacred Heart is likely to have most of its top runners back, including juniors Stephanie Vargas and Amanda Aguilar.

However, reigning league champion Harvard-Westlake returns six of its top seven runners, including state individual champion Cami Chapus, from a team that won the Southern Section and state Division IV titles. Thus, for the Tologs, a repeat as the No. 2 team in the Mission League is a safe prediction.

Prep, which took third in the Prep League last season, must contend with Chadwick and Jaye Buchbinder, who won league and Southern Section Division V crowns as a team and individually before second-place marks at state.

But for co-coaches Mike Roffina and Jill Riehl, who's in her first season as co-coach, rebuilding is the definitive word as the Rebels have 14 freshmen in the program.

"It's a brand new world," Roffina said. "We have a very young team and we're rebuilding."

Led by sophomore Kaitlin Kelleher, the Rebels are likely to have some growing pains, but Roffina is optimistic overall.

"We're very young," Roffina said. "We get all the enthusiasm and joy and challenge. We're very encouraged."

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