By TED SILLANPAA
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Youth typically is served in high school cross-country, but this season the Empire spotlight will fall on veterans who have dominated before and should dominate again.
Casa Grande’s boys return Empire runner of the year Matt Salazar. He was honored after a brilliant junior year and is eligible to lead the pack of top returnees this season. He’s joined by the 2014 girls runner of the year, Sonoma Academy’s Rylee Bowen, who won the CIF Division 5 cross-country title as a freshman and headlines the Empire girls expected back this season.
Top Empire runners will be featured today in the season-opening Rancho Cotate Invitational. The junior varsity events are scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. The boys varsity race is set for approximately 5:10 p.m. followed by the girls varsity event. The races start on the Rancho Cotate High track.
Ten of the 15 girls honored on The Press Democrat’s All-Empire team last year were underclassmen. That leaves a big group of runners capable of starring this season.
Sonoma Academy’s defending North Coast Section Division 5 champion has been hurt by injuries, but Bowen still leads a gifted squad for coach Danny Aldridge.
Sonoma Academy stars Alyssa Goody and Lilly Reinstein will miss the season due to injury. Goody finished fifth in the state Division 5 race last year.
“It’s still too early in the season to know exactly where teams are,” Aldridge said. “We’re not as solid as last year after losing two of our top five runners.”
Depth is a problem for the small-school champions.
“We just don’t have depth year to year,” Aldridge said. “Five runners score in cross-country, so you lose any of your top five runners and you can really slide.”
McKenna Snell is back after earning all-Empire second team honors. Maddy Glenn will be counted on heavily.
Bowen won the state and North Coast Section Division 5 crowns after capturing the Coastal Mountain Conference title.
She won’t be back to defend her Rancho Cotate Invitational win from a year ago. After running deep into the track and field season, Aldridge says she’ll start her cross-country season a bit later.
“We talked about her projected personal bests the other day,” Aldridge said. “Rylee could wind up holding Empire records in every event from the 800 meters to the 2-mile. And, her best event isn’t even a high school event. She’s going to take a shot at Olympic qualifying in the steeplechase. She only ran two steeples last year and then set the national record in her age group.”
Casa Grande’s senior Adria Barich returns after earning a first-team spot last fall. Junior Emma Moon and senior Illeana Moon were second-team choices for the Gauchos’ cross-country powerhouse. Senior Saskia VanOmmeren-Egber gives Casa four big-time runners with lots of experience.
Barich finished fifth in the NCS Division 2 meet, earning a spot in the state championships. She finished third in the North Bay League meet. Illena Moon was fifth in the NBL and seventh in the Rancho Cotate meet last year. Emma Moon wound up eighth in the NBL and 21st in the NCS.
Petaluma’s all-Empire first team runner Madison Parrett returns as a senior after winning the Sonoma County League crown as a junior. She finished 12th in the NCS Division 3 meet. She is joined by teammate Maddy Libbey, also a senior, who was a second-team choice.
Mario Carrillo’s girls face a rebuilding year after all of their top runners graduated. This year’s group could be anchored by sophomore Sydnie Rivas. She finished 11 in the NBL and 24th in the NCS Division 2 meet to advance to the state title meet.
Santa Rosa returns first-team pick Delaney White, a senior hoping to cap an outstanding Empire prep career. White won the NBL title before finishing fourth in NCS Division 2 action and 19th in the state meet. She also turned in impressive performances in high-profile races outside the Empire.
“The Rancho meet isn’t one that teams are peaking for or anything,” Aldridge said. “It just gives you a chance to see where your runners are at this point in the season.”
Salazar is back after battling Epstein-Barr virus last year, which caused chronic fatigue, to lead Casa Grande to the North Coast Division 2 team title. He finished in second place in the NCS Division 2 meet.
Santa Rosa junior Daniel Pride returns after finishing 11th in the NCS Division 2 event. He wound up fifth in the NBL. Junior Luca Mazzanti will join Pride.
He was ninth in the NBL championship meet last year.
Sonoma Academy has more than top-flight female runners. Senior Caleb Richards was 19th in the state Division 5 race after winning the Coastal Mountain Conference. He was fifth in the NCS meet. Joey Johnson could star, according to Aldridge.
“We have depth on our boys’ team,” Aldridge said. “Roseland Prep is the team to beat in our league, though.”
El Molino junior Brian Schulz topped the SCL title meet last year. He was second in NCS Division 4 action before finishing 44th in the state meet.
Maria Carillo’s power should be led by senior Jordan Scobey. He was third in last year’s Rancho Invitational, then went on to finish fourth in the NBL and eighth in the NCS Division 2 showdown.
Montgomery star Stuart Lovelace enters his senior season after finishing eighth in the NBL a year ago.
Piner senior Eduardo Calderon was 17th in NCS Division 4 last year and is expecting to be stronger this fall. Teammate Jacob Hayes, a senior, will help give Piner a formidable boys’ team.
Roseland Prep senior Brandon Escandon is back after finishing fourth in the NCS Division 5 championship. As a junior, he was 21st in the NCS meet.