There's precious little room at the top this season for Arizona cross country athletes.
Of the 12 individual state champions from 2008, 10 return to defend their crowns, including the undisputed queen of girls cross country in Arizona, Xavier's Jessica Tonn.
Tonn is the focal point of a Xavier team that could be the best the state has seen. Tonn enters her senior year with a strong supporting cast led by juniors Katie Penney and Daylee Burr, and the Gators are poised to win their third straight 5A Division I state championship.
Only the 4A-I and 5A-II boys champions graduated, meaning everyone else has a clear favorite.
In the 5A-II girls race, that favorite is Pinnacle's Lacey Kalinen, who was a surprise winner last year as a freshman. Surprisingly, one of Kalinen's biggest challenges this season will come from a teammate, senior Christen Collins, giving the Pioneers the kind of top-level runners that could produce the school's first-ever cross country championship.
While the names at the top of most of the conferences could stay the same, there are plenty of changes this year. The biggest being in 5A, where the conference adopted qualifying times for the state meet. Also new this year is the location of the Doug Conley Invitational, arguably the biggest meet in the state outside of the state championships. Due to some construction at Tempe's Kiwanis Park, the race will move to its original home at Rolling Hills Golf Course in Tempe.
RUNNERS TO WATCH
Sherod Hardt, Sr., Queen Creek, final chance for a title for a runner that has been near the top of 4A-II for the last three seasons.
Cory Breinholt, Jr., Highland, placed 8th in 5A-I last year and should move up the charts even more.
Derek Stanek, Jr., Horizon, came on strong at the end of 2008, led team to region title and ran to 6th-place finish in 5A-II.
Austin Miles, Sr., Cactus Shadows, leader on team that finished 2nd in 4A-I last year.
Tucker Kidd, Sr., Desert Vista, was the Thunder's No. 8 runner last year but came back determined and has vaulted to the top of the heap in preseason work. Desert Vista's top runner is always in the mix come state meet time.
Jessica Tonn, Sr., Xavier, going for second straight state championship and another trip to Foot Locker National Cross Country championships.
Paige LaBlonde, Sr., Saguaro, is top returning runner for team that finished second in 4A-I last season.
Lacey Kalinen, So., Pinnacle, defending champion in 5A-II, looking to maintain her place atop conference.
Ashley Workman, Sr., Queen Creek, move up to 4A-I may benefit Bulldogs' leader. Her 5th-place time in 4A-II (19:33) last year would have made her the 4A-I runner-up.
Taylor Cole, Sr., Hamilton, while catching Tonn may be tough, it'll be interesting to see if Cole can narrow the gap some this season after placing 3rd in 5A-I last year.
TEAMS TO WATCH
Desert Vista: Thunder seem to reload each year, but challenge will be steep with loss of top runner Andrew Kellogg.
Highland: Hawks lose top runner from 3rd-place team of a year ago, but the next five runners return, including talented junior Cory Breinholt.
Brophy: Watch out for the Broncos, who had a freshman and three sophomores among top five runners in 2008.
Pinnacle: No one graduated from team that placed 6th in 5A-II last year.
Saguaro: Sabercats have their top six runners back from a year ago. Should vault into top 5 of 4A-I.
Xavier: Jessica Tonn, Katie Penney and Co. are the class of the Valley.
Pinnacle: The Pioneers return top four runners from 2nd-place team of a year ago, including captain Christen Collins. But they'll have to get better, as team that beat them, Tucson Ironwood Ridge, returns four of top five runners also.
Cactus Shadows: Falcons lose top runner, but next six are back. Will have good battle with Saguaro in Desert Sky region.
Corona del Sol: Aztecs have all of their runners back, led by Danica Ganje, and have their eye on a trophy at state.
Hamilton: Huskies have the talent to join the other top programs and could be a top-5 team by season's end.
OTHER RUNNERS TO WATCH
Arcadia: Brenden Hernandez, Sr.; Basha: Kody Dennison, Jr.; Chandler: Andrew Hagler, Sr.; Corona del Sol: Matt Whitlatch, Sr.; Wade Hooke, Sr.; Desert Mountain: Troy Kellers, Jr.; Gilbert Christian: Jordan Kauk, Sr.; Highland: Jef Marsicola, Sr.; Higley: Marcus Begay, Soph.; Horizon Honors: David Wikoff, Sr.; Queen Creek: Vance Johnson, Sr.; Red Mountain: Russell York, Sr.; Saguaro: Zach Wynn, Jr.; Scottsdale Christian: Blake Bottle, Jr.; Williams Field: Kevin O'Leary, Sr.
Arcadia: Tess Berghoff, Jr.; Basha: Amy Schweitzer, Sr.; Chandler: Megan Mahalovich, Soph.; Corona del Sol: Danica Ganje, Sr.; Kristina Freeman, Sr.; Desert Mountain: Megan Opatz, Jr.; Marissa Opatz, Jr.; Gilbert Christian: Michal Cantrell, Sr.; Gilbert Classical: Cassie Ronai, Soph.; Highland: Danielle Bonlender, Sr.; Horizon Honors: Amanda Petersen, Jr.; Saguaro: Olivia Brancati, Soph.; Scottsdale Christian: Jacqueline Villa, Sr.; Tempe: Leticia Shaban, Soph.; Williams Field: Katie Davies, Jr.
Sept. 5: Scottsdale Running Company XC Festival at Silverado Golf Club, Scottsdale; Padre Invitational at Kiwanis Park, Tempe; Peaks Invitational in Flagstaff.
Sept. 12: Chandler Invitational, Tumbleweed Park, Chandler
Sept. 19: George Young Invitational, Sanctuary Golf Club, Phoenix
Sept. 26: Ojo Rojo Invitational, Tumbleweed Park
Oct. 2: Desert Twilight Festival at Toka Sticks Golf Club, Mesa
Oct. 10: Doug Conley Invitational at Rolling Hills Golf Club, Tempe
Oct. 17: Ken Denson Invitational at Glendale Sandra Day O'Connor
Nov. 7: State Meets at Thunderbird Golf Course
DID YOU KNOW?
The Doug Conley Invitational is moving from its home at Kiwanis Park this year to it's original home at Rolling Hills Golf Course in Tempe.
The Desert Twilight Cross Country Festival has morphed into a big meet, linking the Queen Creek Twilight high school meet with the Arizona State Invitational. So collegiate runners will run on the same course as the prep runners (although at different times). There's even an open race for members of the community.
The Brancati family is well represented at Saguaro, as sophomores Ryan (boys team), Olivia and Andrea (girls team) are three of the top runners in the program.
Teams from outside the Valley have dominated the state in 4A boys competition. Just once since 1971 has a team from the Valley won a 4A title (including 4A-I and 4A-II) and that was Phoenix Greenway in 2005 (4A-I champs).
The Desert Vista boys have finished in the top 3 in 5A (or 5A-I) for the past seven years, the only 5A team to have that kind of consistent success.
Haley Paul, who starred as a high school runner at Desert Vista and moved on to run at Washington State, joined the coaching staff at Xavier this year.