There is no questioning of Desert Vista’s status in the cross country circles of Arizona.
Taking both the boys and girls programs into account, there probably is not a better program in Division I.
The lower divisions have teams like Keams Canyon Hopi, Chinle and Tuba City that can make the claim as well, but when it comes to the big schools no other school quite has the 1-2 punch the Thunder seem to have each year.
It shouldn’t be any different in 2012 as both squads throw out a starting lineup that can be tough to match.
The other two programs — Mountain Pointe in Division I and Horizon Honors in Division IV — have some quality individuals but cannot match the depth the Thunder have to start the year.
The Thunder boys have a trio at the top that will have them thinking about their first title since 2008 with Ryan Dykstra, Carter Macey and Ryan Smith coming back from last season’s state runner-up squad.
Macey finished seventh overall and Dykstra 13th at state, while Smith was 24th to give the Thunder a good shot at getting three into the top 15.
If the team’s preseason Black and Blue intrasquad meet is any indication there will be plenty of quality runners to fill in the other three spots as a total of eight runners finished under the 17-minute mark and another was at 17:01.
Junior Jacob Walimaa is solid fourth with Alec Hoyt, Xavier Esparza, Kyle Havriliak, Tyler Bonebright, Mitchell Bogushefsky and Zach Smith fighting for the final spots.
The Thunder, who has finished in the top three at state in all but one year since 2002, enter the year as one of the favorites with Mesa Mountain View, defending champ Highland and Corona del Sol there as well.
Coach Chris Hanson listed depth, focus and character as the team’s strengths.
Mountain Pointe, which didn’t qualify for state last year, will be trying to find its old form with a handful of quality runners back.
The core of the team, assuming last year’s competitors all return, are senior Avi Dasgupta, junior Jacob Hill, junior Sam Jewell and senior Jake Potter. They all competed in the Division I sectional meet when the Pride finished 12th.
In order to make up the difference, they will need to cut quite a bit of time off their personal records from last season.
Horizon Honors have three state runners back who will need to make big improvements to put the Eagles in the top 10 this year as junior Nikolai Powell had the best finish last season at 84th while seniors Kai Knight and Jaren Yelavich didn’t crack the top 100 a year ago, but should in 2012.
“Both the returning and new athletes are working hard to push themselves and the team to state,” Horizon Honors coach Lura Beets said.
The boys team will also count on seniors Levi Haros, Josh Wikoff and Alec Singh.
The other half of the Thunder dominance will be just as strong in 2012, but this time around second place is not good enough.
“This year we are going to knock off Xavier,” coach Doug Christofis said. “It might come off as pompous, but we’ve been saying the last few years that we will ride the coattails of Xavier and finished second. This year is a little bit of a different mentality.
“We are going to be state champions.”
The Thunder have the horses to do just that but Xavier, which has won five straight big-school titles, do as well.
Desert Vista, which has finished second three straight seasons, will do its best while counting on several athletes coming off injuries.
Seniors Jenna Maack and Brittany Tretbar ended the season in a walking boot, while Natalie Kraft has a stress fracture that kept her from starting the season.
“We should be 100 percent (by October),” Christofis said. “It was just wear and tear, pounding out the miles. We have a good program that will have them all back.”
Maack finished sixth last year with the only runner that finished ahead of her — medalist Sarah Falker of Xavier — coming back, while Tretbar was 10th a year ago.
Sophomore Dani Jones has been very strong in the preseason and should crack the top 15 after placing 17th a year ago.
The rest of the lineup will be strong as sophomore Alexa Foster, junior Nicole Hicks, junior Tessa Reinhard, junior Michelle Abunaja and freshman Emily Smith give the Thunder eight quality runners.
“We have national aspirations,” said Christofis, who will take the Thunder to the Mt SAC in Walnut, Cali., meet on Oct. 20. “We think we can be that good.”
Mountain Pointe’s aspirations are a little lower after qualifying only individual Cera Hassanin, who finished 27th, last year.
She will be back to lead the group that also includes junior Julia van Horn, senior Katelin Warren, Jessica Riley and Collen Murphy.
Horizon Honors might have the best shot at an individual champion as junior Mikaela Martin finished second last year.
She will have her work cut out to close the gap on returning champion Sarah MacDonald of Pusch Ridge as Martin finished almost a full minute behind (18:55.28 to 19:54.17).
• Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JSkodaAFN.