By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Qualifying for the state high school cross country finals is tough enough yet finishing on the podium is in reach for the Empire’s top runners Saturday in Fresno.
Luis Luna from Piner and Nicole Lane of El Molino — two of the region’s all-time great runners — are primed for Top 10 finishes. The Piner boys have the best shot at a team medal.
“There will be interesting battles. If you can just get on the podium it’s awesome,” said Albert Caruana, a California prep cross country expert and coach from Hillsborough.
Culminating several weeks of major meets, the California Interscholastic Federation championships feature races in five divisions for both boys and girls. Awards go to the top three teams and 10 individuals in each race for all divisions.
Covering 3.1 miles at Woodward Park, the course features mostly dirt trails over rolling hills.
The day begins with the girls Division 4 race at 8:30 a.m. and conclude with the boys Div. 3 race about 1:30 p.m.
Lane looks to get the Empire on the podium in Div. 4 after taking the North Coast Section title a week ago. A steadily strong summer of training put Lane in position for a memorable season as she continues moving up the record books.
“She’ll have a shot to finish in the top five. She’s pretty tough,” Caruana said. “She’s been improving all along. It’s obvious she did her homework over the summer.”
The other top Empire individual medal hopeful is Luna. After running slower than hoped at last year’s state finals, yet still finishing sixth, the record setting Luna wants a win in Div. 3.
But he faces a very strong field including Thomas Joyce of Campolindo who edged Luna at the section finals. The pair swapped spots at the sectionals a year ago and met in a handful of meets.
“They’ve kind of been going back and forth this year,” Caruana said. “Running is definitely one of those things where some days you’ve got it and some days you don’t.”
Also anticipating a rematch are the Piner boys after finishing second to Campolindo at the section finals. Luna leads a squad that recorded the fastest team time ever on the Spring Lake course in Santa Rosa with Jaime Silva close on his heels. Efren Reyes, Jason Saler, Matt Mulligan and Zekaryas Mebrahtu give the Prospectors the depth needed to compete at the state level.
“A lot of teams have a few good runners. You need five solid runners, which is hard to do,” Caruana said. “They’re really talented. They can definitely finish way up there.”
Much like Piner, the Maria Carrillo girls face a stacked state field after winning the section Div. 2 team title. Leading the Pumas are Lauren Kraus, Andrea Natoli and Brynna Thigpen, all top ten finishers at the section finals.
Also contending for medals are several of the Empire’s other top boys’ runners. Paul Holden (Ukiah) finished second in Div. 2 last week. Alexi Taylor (Cardinal Newman) was second in Div. 4. Alex Conner (Sonoma Valley) was third in Div. 3.
The group is strong. That trio and Silva ran some of the fastest times ever at Spring Lake this season — Luna set the course record.
Also qualifying for the state meet among Empire teams were the Maria Carrillo, Cardinal Newman and Sonoma Academy boys.
The other individuals from the region at the state meet are Casa Grande’s Ashley Moffett, Piner twins Kyra Johnson and Dezirae, Sonoma Academy’s Katy Lee, and on the boys side Michael Tomasi from Santa Rosa and Joe Carrillo from Cloverdale.
California Interscholastic Federation Cross Country Championships
Saturday, 8:30 a.m.
Woodward Park, Fresno, 3.1 mile course
Races in five divisions for both boys and girls.