Originally Published: September 11, 2015 6:02 a.m.
This Saturday, Sept. 12, Prescott and Bradshaw Mountain high schools' cross-country teams will compete at the annual Ray Wherley Invitational on the campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
The widely-attended meet in Prescott, which begins at 9 a.m. and includes strong prep cross-country programs from across the state, seems to always provide a great test for the Nos. 1-6 varsity runners on each squad, as well as up-and-comers.
What follows is a breakdown for the varsity runners on the Badgers' and Bears' 2015 boys' and girls' teams, as well as for Chino Valley High, which will sit out the Wherley this year.
The Division II Badgers' boys are led by Nakai Lake, the team's senior No. 1 runner, followed closely by junior No. 2 John McMahon.
Newcomer Bryan Evans, returnee Justin Warren, and freshmen Koby Brown and Zach Zertuche will contribute, Prescott coach Ben Holskin said. Sophomore Matthew Bradley, a state qualifier in 2014, is injured and out indefinitely. And yet the D-II state meet remains in the Badgers' sights.
"Last year we were very close to qualifying (as a team) for state, and it's not out of the question to try to shoot to qualify for state this year," Holskin said.
In the Badgers' season opener at Embry-Riddle Sept. 2, Prescott won a close team race against Thunderbird and Sunrise Mountain. Lake finished first individually.
"In our first meet, we saw who our leaders were," Holskin said.
PHS moved on this past Saturday, Sept. 5, to take sixth out of 15 teams in the Ascent Division at the annual Flagstaff Peaks Invitational. Lake and McMahon finished among the Top 20 individuals.
In 2014, Badgers senior No. 1 Simon Paige was a fleet-footed star, but he got injured and was unable to run at state. PHS may not have an individual state title contender in 2015, but Holskin added that all of his runners have comparable speed and push one another in practice.
"We don't have some of the faster guys that we've had, but in terms of cohesiveness as a team, that's probably the biggest strength," he said. "And it's not necessarily something we've had before."
On the girls' side, the Badgers have plenty of young talent to compensate for the loss of former team No. 1 and graduated senior Jordan Twombly-Ellis, who led PHS to a state qualification as a team in 2014.
Speedy sophomore Makennah Mills, who's Prescott's No. 1; sophomore No. 2 Carissa Evans; junior Katie Townsend, a past state qualifier; and sophomore standout Swayze Smith are solid.
"Jordan was a great leader and guided the girls, but we have the core of the team back, which is really nice," Holskin said.
Others to keep an eye on for Prescott's girls' team are sophomore returnee Lacy Dobbins and talented freshman Maggie Dunkel.
In their season opener Sept. 2 at ERAU, the Badgers finished a distant second to Sunrise Mountain in a tough three-way field that, like the boys, included T-bird. PHS moved on to finish third out of 12 teams in the Ascent Division at the Peak Invite in Flagstaff, where Mills won the race and Evans was third. That finish might be a precursor for what's to come in late October and early November once the sectionals and state meets arrive.
"We definitely want to qualify for state this year," Holskin said. "It's hard to say without Jordan running where we would fall in terms of placing. But we need to shoot for at least Top 10, if not Top 5 in the state."
For the boys, who qualified for state as a team in 2014, Bradshaw returns a key contingent in senior Alex Villagran; Alex's younger brother, junior David Villagran; and Ricky Ayala.
However, Brandon Fischer, who's a standout soccer player; Emilio Mendibles; freshman Eddie Miner; Arthur Castaneda; and freshman Riley Belone will no doubt become integral pieces for the Division II Bears in 2015.
"Alex is showing great leadership, and he's a great role model for the underclassmen," veteran Bears coach Mike Simon said of the eldest Villagran. "He's been teaching them all about cross-country at the varsity level."
In Bradshaw's season-opening dual meet versus Goldwater Sept. 2 at Bradshaw Mtn. Middle School near Dewey, Alex was runner-up and David was third. Against LaJoya and Agua Fria on Wednesday, Sept. 9, in Avondale, Alex won the race and David claimed second.
"It's really a talented group of athletes," Simon said. "We hope to get in the Top 10 at sectionals and have a high finish at state - break into the Top 10 there."
Although Bradshaw has struggled to piece together a full girls' team, Simon has praised freshman Anna Zea, who was individual runner-up vs. Goldwater, finishing only a second off the winning time. Zea moved on this week to place sixth individually vs. LaJoya and Agua Fria. Simon also has Elssy Estrada, a returnee from 2014, to lean on for points.
Division III Chino Valley's top boys' runners from 2014 graduated, but Cougars coach Marc Metz said his 2015 varsity squad has "a nice pack between (runners) 1-6." Metz added, though, that many of his runners this fall are new to the sport and need to run more miles to gain experience.
"Some of them ran over the summer, some of them were lifeguards at the (community) pool, and some wrestled," he said of his boys.
This season, Chino is led by team No. 1 David Lemcke, a senior who played soccer in 2014 and has also wrestled. Sophomore Brenden Tupper (No. 2), junior Jade Wilkins (No. 3), junior Christian Herb (No. 4), sophomore David Gehman (No. 5) and junior Alex Daniels (No. 6) form the rest of the group.
This past Wednesday, Sept. 2, the boys won the Wickenburg Multiple, defeating both Parker and Wickenburg. Lemcke and Tupper finished second and third, respectively.
"It was a good place for us to start, but we have to keep it in stride," Metz said. "It was a good first meet, but we have a lot of work to do."
Against larger schools at the Payson Invitational Wednesday, Sept. 9, the boys placed seventh out of nine teams, as Tupper paced the Cougars with a 14th-place time.
It's not likely to get any easier for Chino, as the team is lumped in a tough northern Arizona section with 16 schools. Metz said he would like to see the boys finish among the section's top 10.
On the girls' side, Metz will lean on sophomore Becca Tupper, senior Chloe Vallejo, sophomore Mya Pullins, senior Natalie Malloy, junior Sandra Falls and freshman Lizzy Tupper. Freshmen Abbie Golden, Chloe Coker and Azalia Slay are others to watch. Returnee McKeisha Nez may also fit into the mix.
Last fall, Malloy and Nez qualified for the state meet. Metz said the team didn't come together until sectionals. Could that happen again in 2015? It's anyone's guess. The Cougars' girls placed fifth out of nine teams in Payson.
"It's a good group to work with, and there's a lot of new people," Metz added. "I have had to explain some things about workouts, and get them to believe in what we're doing. Sectionals is where it counts."
The Cougars will next run in the annual Four Corners Invitational in Flagstaff Saturday, Sept. 19. Like the Wherley meet, several of the best teams in the state compete at Four Corners.
This past Saturday in the 17th annual Territorial Days 10K in Chino, the Cougars raised money for their yearly trip to California Sept. 24-26. They'll look to bond further as a team in the Golden State.