Cross country

Mountain Pointe's Francesca Olguin is expected to be one of the Pride's top runners this season.

By David Jolkovski, AFN

The Desert Vista boys cross country team had a motto of “All In” a year ago.

It came to fruition as an injury to the Thunder’s top runner didn’t stop the program from winning the Division I state title.

So what’s the encore?

It’s hard to tell, but it’s clear the Thunder will still be in contention as coach Chris Hanson has led Desert Vista to a top three finish in 10 of the last 11 seasons.

The Thunder lost four quality competitors in Carter Macey, Ryan Dykstra, Ryan Smith and Zach Smith, but will still have some strong leadership.

Seniors Jacob Walimaa, Alex Hoyt and Andrew Hermanski take control on the program and it was clear to Hanson by the work they did in the summer that the trio is ready to do just that when the season gets started on Sept. 2 at the Sole Sports Running Cross Country Festival.

“It should be a promising season,” he said. “We should be top three in the state.”

Walimaa was the Thunder’s highest placer at the state meet, finishing 11th overall, with a time of 16 minutes and 22.57 seconds, while Hoyt cracked the top 25 at 16:52.12.

Others will step up as then-freshman Xavier Esparza did a year ago to keep the “All In” approach intact.

The Thunder girls have similar aspirations as Jeff Messer takes over the program from Doug Christofis, who led Desert Vista to three straight state runner-up finishes until finishing third last year.

Messer comes over from Xavier where he helped lead the Gators to six straight state titles with co-head coach Dave Van Sickle.

He brings a different approach to a program that is already among the state’s elite. Messer believes the Thunder will be pushed to a new level while building off the extremely high set of standards put in place by his predecessor.

“Our team and program expectation is to completely excel in every aspect of our academic and service commitments while simultaneously competing at the highest level throughout the Arizona high school cross country season,” he said.

It helps to have Jones involved in the program as junior Dani is one of the premier distance runners in the state while her freshman sister, Baylee, will be among the Thunder’s top three spots.

The other runner expected to push the Thunder to the next level is senior Nicole Hicks, who was the Thunder’s sixth runner last year.

The key, clearly, is the elder Jones, who finished sixth at state last year.

“Our team needs to and is improving its collective self-belief,” Messer said. “I expect Jones to be one of the premier cross-country student-athletes in the state of Arizona.”

The Mountain Pointe program is going through a bit of a transition as Grant Sinclair takes over the Pride, which hasn’t been competitive in recent year.

“Given that this is my first year with this group of athletes, and the fact that I am new to Arizona and still familiarizing myself with all of the great teams against whom we will be competing, it is difficult to predict where we will stand at the end of the season,” Sinclair said. “But I know this — we have a solid core of boys and a solid core of girls who are committed and working hard at achieving their absolute potential. We should have a very productive season.”

Sinclair, who is an Ahwatukee resident that has coached distance running since 1998 in Virginia and Tennessee, is taking a wait and see approach as to mentioning top individuals.

“It’s hard to say who among our younger runners might emerge as a potential front runner or solid core runner,” he said. “But half of our boys are freshmen, and half of our girls will be back in 2014. My initial impression is they are sufficiently dedicated to progressively getting better.”

Horizon Honors took a step back as a program last year as neither the boys or girls teams qualified for state, but senior Michaela Martin is back for more.

She finished second as sophomore, and fifth last season, and should be a title contender this season.

Joining Martin as top runners for the Eagles this year will be Nikolai Powell, Jack Kenzler and Patrick McPherson.

“I’m excited to work with our returning and new members of our XC team,” sixth-year coach Lura Beets said. “Looking forward to seeing the season end result of our teams as well as for the individuals.”

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

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