The Desert Vista High School boys cross-country program has been a pillar of success since its inception in 1996. Led by head coach Chris Hanson, the Thunder have captured eight state championships, eight region/section championships and recently were crowned the champions of Tempe for the 13th time.
They have established themselves as one of the best, if not the best, cross-country programs in the state, but one thing has always alluded Hanson, his runners, and every other boys’ cross-country team in Arizona: a trip to the national championship in Portland, Oregon.
Getting to the National Championship has proved difficult for several reasons.
First, the Thunder must finish among the top two teams at the Nike Southwest Cross Regionals in Casa Grande on Nov. 18. Second, they must compete in one of the toughest regions in the country with teams from New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. And they must try to find a balance between focusing on the present and keeping an eye on the future.
“Obviously, the state meet is big. We obviously want to be a state champion. It’s a point of pride for your squad,” Hanson said. “You can’t think you have this thing in the bag; you gotta perform, eating right and not getting too far ahead of ourselves.”
As for the national championship, Hanson added, “No Arizona coach, including myself, has been able to figure out how to do that.”
Four girls’ cross-country teams from Arizona, including two from Desert Vista, have qualified to compete at the national championship and this year Hanson and his talented group of runners are looking to become the first boys team to accomplish that feat.
After a successful regular season filled with signature wins and finishes against top teams from around the country, they may just have the talent to do so.
This season’s success couldn’t be attributed to just one thing, but senior Reece Donihi has led the way for the Thunder.
“This has been by far the most impressive season for us not only physically but mentally,” Donihi said. “I think as a result of a culmination of almost four years of consistent dedication and relentless hunger for success, we have finally tapped into our potential as a group.”
Throughout this season, the Thunder have made statements in several different races against both in-state and national competition.
In September, Desert Vista traveled to the Woodridge Cross Country Classic in California, where the team placed second to the No. 2-ranked team on milesplit.com, Great Oak High School. Along with their runnerup finish, Donihi set a new three-mile school record with a 14:28.7 clocking.
Two weeks later, the Thunder took first in the Desert Twilight Cross Country Festival in Casa Grande, which features teams from all over the country.
The team’s performances at those two meets put them in the national spotlight and earned them a spot in the top 20 teams on milesplit.com. Hanson also believes that it helped his squad discover how good it actually is.
“When you go to California, you can really see how good other schools and other programs are,” Hanson said. “You may be the big fish here, but when you go to another state it makes a difference. So, when we took second at Woodbridge to Great Oak, and we were close, I mean it was a fight to the finish, to know that we were that close and we stood toe to toe with them, and I think there were something like 300 teams at that meet, and we took second. That’s a pretty big deal.”
Since those big meets, the team has made its mark within the state, capturing both a city title and recently captured another sectional title as sophomore Sammy Van Alstine clocked a 15:58 at Crossroads Park in Gilbert to lead the Thunder.
As the state championship approaches on Saturday, the Thunder will look to capture its fourth straight title. But the team also has its eyes set on another big accomplishment in the weeks to come.
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