The Desert Vista cross country programs have a different feel in 2013.

The level of success remains the same as they showed over the weekend at the seventh annual Desert Twilight Cross Country Festival at Toka Sticks Golf Course, but they are going about it in different ways.

The boys, who finished tied for fourth at the Desert Twilight, with a five-man pack separated by as little as 19 seconds.

In years past, including last year’s state title team until injuries took their toll, the Thunder usually had one, if not two, superstars out front with the rest of the team a step behind but still posting formidable times.

Now, Desert Vista still has two leaders in sophomore Xavier Esparza and senior Jacob Walimaa, but the rest of the runners — Alec Hoyt, Kyle Havriliak and Ben Davis — are just a few steps behind. Their effort led to a 15th place finish at the highly-respected Woodbridge event in California on Sept. 21.

“This is the best pack I have ever coached,” Thunder coach Chris Hanson said. “They are excited, healthy and they’re buying into it. They lean on one another for support and strength.

“In years past we have had one or two guys out front, but that’s not the case this year. It took the whole group to move up together and we have built on that. There is a cohesion there that hasn’t existed, in my mind, before. It’s kind of cool and different.”

The Thunder is heading in the right direction when it comes to defending its state title, like Corona del Sol, Highland and others. The Aztecs have been the most consistent with three top runners in Nathan Rodriguez, Ryan Normand and transfer Marcus Wheeler, who is a junior at his third East Valley school after attending Hamilton and Chandler.

“Corona is more talented and deeper, no doubt in my mind,” Hanson said. “With that said we don’t give in to anyone. We are working toward winning state and we have the right mix to do it.”

The Thunder girls announced their presence with authority to start the year when they beat six-time defending state champion Xavier in the first event of the year.

Under the direction of Jeff Messer, in his first year with the Thunder after being the co-head coach at Xavier, the Thunder has kept up the expectations ever since winning the Twilight over the weekend and fourth at Woodbridge, which has one of the toughest fields in the West.

“We don’t set any limits,” Messer said. “We ran to the best of our ability. There is no question we gained confidence from it. It is one of the main benefits. The girls understand now what is within their reach.”

Messer knew he had talent when he took over the program with junior Dani Jones, who won the Twilight with a meet record time of 17:19.3, and freshman Baylee Jones along with senior Nicole Hicks, freshmen Maddi Bucci and Sabrina Camino leading the way. Dani won the Twilight with a record time of 17:19.3.

It was a matter of getting them in the right state of mind to take advantage of what could be a very special group.

“As an example of how things are different is all of our practices are in the morning (before school) instead of the afternoon,” Messer said. “(Former coach) Doug (Christofis) liked the afternoon practices, but we train in the morning with the cooler temperatures.

“It’s a great group of young ladies. They’ve embraced the mantra of no limits. They are mature beyond their years and want to be great. We have done some positive things and we think we can make it a special season, but we remain humble.”

Messer, whose squad is ranked No. 21 in the nation, has a very measured and careful approach so getting him to say anything about any gratification he’d get out of stopping the Gators’ streak of state wins ain’t going to happen.

But he is confident the team will be stronger come Nov. 9 than it has shown thus far and Xavier coach Dave Van Sickle and the Gators, who are ranked No. 15 in the nation, will be more than tested.

“We knocked heads a little bit in the spring (in track) and at the Sole Sports (Festival won by DV to open the season),” Messer said. “We are close friends and I am sure he wants to win more than ever. With me I base my whole entire life about building on the process and if we follow the process good things will happen for our team and our program.”

• Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or Follow him on Twitter @JSkodaAFN.

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