Mountain Ridge's boys and girls cross country teams ran different routes to get there, but both have arrived at the same status in 2008 - a pleasant surprise.
Thursday afternoon, both teams participated in the Desert Valley region championships. Results were not available at press time. If both teams' earlier times hold form, Mountain Ridge pushed region kingpins Brophy Prep and Xavier, respectively.
Then its on to the state championship Nov. 8 at Cave Creek Golf Course, 15202 N. 19th Ave. in Phoenix.
"I think that we will surprise some people," said Coach Don Tate.
Tate said the girls squad is shooting for a top five finish in 5A-I at state, while the boys expect to be in the top 10 and could creep into the top five.
Historically, the boys have been also-rans while the girls contended for team and individual honors. And, while the guys were happy to cheer on their teammates' winning ways, the publicity garnered by the girls in recent years became an off-season motivation.
"That actually helped us drive more that they were getting all the attention," senior Giacomo Cappalletti said.
Both Tate and Cappalletti point to the offseason as the time when this improvement was forged. Cappalletti said the team spent quite a bit of time together over the summer and has become a closer-knit unit as the season approached. The boys also upped the intensity of road course runs.
"They started doing harder workouts and really pushing themselves," Tate said.
However, team bonding and harder workouts alone can't account for a squad that finished 15th in 5A-I in 2006 and 16th in 2007 shooting to move up 10 places this year. Tate said this team, led by three seniors and three juniors, is physically stronger, more experienced and deeper than any he's had in recent years.
Cameron Sullivan and fellow junior Kyle Marshall lead the way on the course while deferring to Cappalletti and David Wagner off course. Sullivan has posted top 10 finishes at Ray Wherley, Ken Denson O'Connor and Boulder Creek invitationals this fall and may crack the top 10 at state.
"He's approaching it more as a racer, instead of someone just running out there," Tate said.
The team has also sharpened its focus in these meets, particularly O'Connor and Boulder Creek, where it finished third. In the Wherley Meet Mountain Ridge finished an equally impressive seventh, considering the competition included top Northern Arizona schools like Mingus, Hopi and Flagstaff and Phoenix powers Cesar Chavez, Alhambra and Brophy.
As state approaches, Cappalletti said he thinks the team matches up well physically and can contend if it gets past a mental block.
"We need to go into it thinking that we're going to run hard and not thinking that we can't keep up," he said.
On the girls side, they've exceeded expectations with youth.
The Bishton twins have left the building. Nadya - first in state in 2006 and 2007 - and Nastia - third in 2006 and second in 2007 - propelled the team to a third place finish in 2006 and a near-miss in state last year, as Xavier squeaked by with the title.
Mountain Ridge also lost its third- and fourth-place girls at state to graduation, and its fifth-place runner decided not to stay on the team, Tate said. The coach knew, however, the cupboard was not bare with star sophomore Nathalie Nguyen rounding back into form and two impact freshmen - Stefanie Nguyen and Ashley Pinkney - coming in.
What came as a surprise to the coach was the addition of another freshman, Victoria Fernandez, who joined the team and has become its No. 3 runner. The young talent and the team's preparations, which began as soon as the 2007 season ended, Tate said, combined to form a team that is peaking in time for state.
"When you have talent like that, and a program like we have, you can have success very quickly," Tate said.
Nathalie Nguyen has posted the best results of any Mountain Lion runner this year, coming in fourth at Wherley, fifth at O'Connor, seventh at Queen Creek and third at Boulder Creek. Tate said her status as the team's sixth-place runner at state last year was misleading, and that before an injury she was only behind the Bishton twins on the hierarchy.
"She just ran out of time to get back before state in 2007," Tate said.
The kiddie corps has solid help from Mountain Ridge's No. 2 runner, junior Maggie Wiemeyer, and the Leber sisters. Rebecca is a junior and Rachel is the lone senior in the top seven.
While Nathalie Nguyen lingers near the leaders and may finish in the top five Nov. 8, the rest of the team can usually be found bunched up in the next pack. It's a testament to the girls' togetherness and coaching, Rachel Leber said.
"We have a unity there," she said. "It's not just that we want to run fast. It's that we want to run in a way that we push each other to finish better."
The team came in second at Wherley, third at O'Connor, seventh at Queen Creek and second at Boulder Creek, but it's most proud of a 50th place finish. Mountain Ridge was one of 141 girls teams to take part in the Stanford Invitational Sept. 27 in Palo Alto, Calif.
To finish in the top half of a best-in-the west field composed mostly of parochial schools was a big confidence boost for the young team, Rachel Leber said.
"This is a public school," she said. "A lot of those schools have really strong programs."