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Posted: Tuesday, September 3, 2013 5:14 pm | Updated: 4:34 pm, Thu Sep 5, 2013.

For the first time in three years, there will be a new king and queen of high school cross country in Arizona.

The state’s top division has been dominated the past three years by Cibola’s Bernie Montoya and Xavier’s Sarah Fakler, but both are now preparing for their first collegiate season. Also moving on to college are defending boys state champions Andy Truard of Salpointe (Div. II) and Jake Wynn of Saguaro (Div. III), as well as girls champs Diana Garcia of Tempe (Div. III) and Anna Long of Scottsdale Christian (Div. IV).

What that means is there is a whole new crop of runners salivating at the chance to taste victory in the state championship races on Nov. 9 at Cave Creek Golf Course in Phoenix.

Here’s a breakdown of the top contenders from the East Valley:

Senior boys

Based on how 2012 played out, it would be a pretty safe bet to say a Corona del Sol runner will claim the Division I state title in 2013. Seniors Nate Rodriguez and Ryan Normand finished 3rd and 6th, respectively at the Div. I meet last year and were the only two underclassmen out of the top nine finishers.

Rodriguez would have to be called the favorite between the two based on his junior season, both in cross country and in track. He was the state runner-up in both the 1,600 and 3,200 last year and third in the 800. His top 5k cross country time of 15:35 is two seconds slower than Normand’s top time, but Rodriguez has beaten Normand in the majority of their head-to-head matchups.

The fact that Normand has worked his way into a title contender is a feel-good story in itself. Health issues dogged Normand his first two seasons. He finished 76th in Division I as a freshman and 123rd as a sophomore, not exactly eye-catching efforts. However, he stayed healthy his junior year and ran to his potential and beyond.

After Rodriguez and Normand, there are a handful of seniors that could challenge. Desert Vista’s Jacob Walimaa led the Thunder to the Div. I team title with his surprise 11th place finish a year ago. He’ll be looking to lead the Thunder to another title, but with a little less depth this year, Walimaa will be counted on to finish high.

Three other seniors are back and ready to run at the front of the pack. Perry’s Gunnar Albrecht, Highland’s Weston Jones and Desert Vista’s Alec Hoyt all have top-5 potential.

Division II is also shaping up to be a very competitive field. Just 33 seconds separated the Div. II runner-up (Vista Grande’s Adrian Ortega, who returns) and 15th place. Among the East Valley runners that finished in that group of 15 are Notre Dame senior Jack Hovland, who was fifth, Apache Junction senior Omar Ewert (13th) and Arcadia senior John Reniewicki (15th). Any of those three runners could emerge as champion, but will have plenty of challengers, as 10 of the top 15 runners from last year were juniors.

Another senior to watch in Div. II is Higley’s Brennan Barfuss, who was 25th as a junior in Div. III. Barfuss is coming off a strong track season in which he posted the 7th best 3,200-meter time by an underclassman in Arizona, clocking a 9:30.95.

Junior boys

The top returning junior in Div. I is Mesquite’s Tyler Day, who ran to a tenth place finish as a sophomore. Day will need to continue to improve in order to challenge a strong group of seniors.

Other Div. I juniors to watch are Desert Vista’s Kyle Havriliak, Hamilton’s Seamus White and Highland’s Logan Jones. In Div. II, two juniors could challenge for the title. Cactus Shadows’ Keith Durkin was 9th as a sophomore in Div. II and is the top returner for the defending champion Falcons. Another junior, Campo Verde’s Lucky Schreiner moves up from Div. III. Schreiner emerged as a contender during a strong track season in which he was second in Div. II in both the 1,600 and 3,200.

Alex Stevens of Saguaro is the top returning junior in Div. III. As a sophomore, he was a state medalist, placing 14th. Stevens will need to leap-frog a few other underclassmen in Div. III, as three other sophomores and a pair of juniors finished ahead of him.

Sophomore boys

Typically, high school cross country runners see big improvements from their freshman to sophomore years. If that’s the case, be on the lookout for a these runners this fall.

Perry’s Cade Burks enjoyed a strong first season, ending with a 24th-place finish in Div. I and the best time by any freshman on the Cave Creek Golf Club course. Mesquite’s Day was the only then-sophomore to finish ahead of Burks at state in Div. I. With a full offseason under his belt, the sophomore-Burks could be poised for a top-10 finish.

Another freshman to run well in the Div. I meet last year was Desert Vista’s Xavier Esparza, who was 38th. He also has top-10 potential, as was shown during his 7th place effort at the Div. I, Section II meet last season and his fifth place finish at the season-opening Sole Sports Running Zone Cross Country Festival on Monday.

Senior girls

Xavier has become a cross country dynasty in the past decade, winning six straight titles in Arizona’s largest division. It will take a major surprise to knock off the Gators this year, as they return five of the seven runners who competed at the Division I meet last year.

The top returning finisher in Division I is Xavier senior Samantha Mattice, who was fourth last year as a junior. Another senior, Mountain View’s Huston Jones, and a junior, Desert Vista’s Dani Jones are back after finishing in the top 6. Less than four seconds separated those three runners and all three are more than capable of climbing to the top of the podium.

Mattice personifies the type of runner that Xavier has been producing in recent years. She was a consistent top-10 finisher in the races she competed in and improved as the season progressed, running her best 5k time at the season-ending Nike Cross Regional meet.

Mattice will also have fellow Xavier seniors Julianne Vice and Shelby Brown to lean on. Vice was 21st at the Div. I meet last year and Brown was 23rd, but both are capable of top-5 finishes. Those three will provide the leadership for the Gators as they seek consecutive title No. 7.

Huston Jones really broke through as a junior last year, winning the Adobe Invitational and placing top five in four other meets, including Ojo Rojo, the Section 3 championships and state.

Another senior aiming for a state title is Horizon Honors’ Mikaela Martin, who was fifth a year ago in Div. IV. Three seniors finished ahead of Martin last year, opening the way for another high finish. In order to ascend to the top of Div. IV, Martin will have to contend with Ganado’s Nikesha Eagleman, who was the runner-up as a freshman.

Junior girls

For Dani Jones, last season’s 6th-place finish in Div. I was a bit of a disappointment. Her sophomore season included victories in three big races, including Doug Conley and the Div. I Section 2 meet. She also finished 15th in the Girls Team Sweepstakes at the Mt. SAC Invitational.

Jones followed up on her strong cross country season with an even stronger track season, winning individual state titles in the 800 and 1,600 and finishing second in the 3,200. Jones will have her sights set squarely on breaking away from the pack as a junior. Based on her track performances, it’s a real possibility.

Another junior that is a title contender is Chaparral’s Ali Kallner. Kallner outkicked Dani Jones to win the Ojo Rojo Invitational last year and ran to an 8th place finish in Div. I.

Other juniors looking to move up the ranks are Xavier’s Sierra Brown and Mesquite’s Alice Jensen.

Sophomore girls

The sophomore runner with the best outlook for this season is Fountain Hills’ Sierra Jarriel, who was the Div. III runner-up and had the fastest time of any freshman last year at state. Jarriel will have company from another sophomore, River Valley’s Courtney Lewis, who was fourth last year.

In Division II, Arcadia’s Megan Reniewicki will try to improve her 10th-place finish last year. In Div. I, Xavier’s Jane Miller was the No. 3 finisher for the Gators and the only freshman on Xavier’s roster at state, where she was 14th.

Freshman girls

It is not uncommon for freshman girls to burst onto the cross country circuit ready to compete with the state’s best, and this year that appears to be the case for a pair of first-year high school runners.

Desert Vista’s Baylee Jones is already an accomplished runner, having won multiple state titles in both cross country and track as a youth competitor. If healthy, the younger Jones (yes, Dani is her sister) will give anyone in the state a run for their money. She proved that on Monday placing second, just 12 seconds behind her sister, at the Sole Sports meet. Jones has been battling a nagging leg injury during the summer, so the Desert Vista coaching staff will likely be very careful with how they use their young phenom.

Another new competitor to watch is Chaparral’s Emily Crall, who was two seconds back of Baylee Jones for third at the Sole Sports meet.

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