Desert Vista boys cross country coach Chris Hanson has long approached his team with a strength-in-numbers mentality.
After all, despite only being allowed seven true “varsity” runners per race, Hanson’s Thunder boys teams of recent seasons have averaged well into the 60s in terms of total participation, spanning all grade levels.
The scheme obviously hasn’t hurt, either, with Desert Vista, the current defending Class 5A-I state champions, finishing either first or second in the state in six of the last seven campaigns, including winning three titles.
This season, however, that all-for-one idea might be more true than ever.
In the past, despite having deep squads that not only ran seven deep, but up to dozens more capable athletes, Desert Vista usually always had that one competitor that could separate from the pack and compete for an individual title as well. In 2005, it was state champion Garrett Kelly. In 2006 and 2007 it was Matt Boughton – a two-time state champ. Last season, it was Andrew Kellogg, who finished third overall at the 5A-I meet.
The twist with Kellogg’s departure from the DV squad is that he’s actually still a student at Desert Vista. Hanson said Kellogg, a senior this year, decided in the offseason not to run cross country this year.
“We rely on the team first, always. It’s never easy to lose a top runner, but when it happens, you just move forward,” he said.
And move forward they have, with a top seven mixed with senior experience, junior growth and freshman exuberance, it’s not likely any one DV competitor will finish competing for the state individual title this year.
As a team, that may be a different story.
Desert Vista’s seven-deep approach reminds Hanson of a basketball team that changes its style to fit the tools of its players.
“Let’s say your starting five is under six foot, you’re going to play differently,” he said, noting the difference than if a team had a seven-footer to be the go-to-player.
“As a team, we’re competitive and we plan on being competitive all the way through the season,” he added.
Seniors Tucker Kidd, Albert Kombe, Kevin Kennedy and Sean Gormley, juniors Ryan Maack and Trey Kennedy and freshman Ryan Dykstra – who won the freshman race at the Chandler Invitational meet earlier this season – currently sit as the Thunder’s top seven, eligible to compete in varsity races.
Hanson said the true sign of his team’s depth is in how many athletes could actually compete for a spot in the top seven each season.
“There are probably as many as 15 who could compete for that spot this year,” he said, adding that all 65 runners on this year’s team contribute. “It’s the greatest part of cross country and track. Everyone can contribute in some way. They don’t have to be the fastest runner, but everyone brings something to the table.”
This season, the Desert Vista team is breaking mold in another way – in choosing not to compete at the prestigious Doug Conley Invitational meet, scheduled this year for Oct. 10 at Tempe’s Kiwanis Park.
The meet is a mid-season gathering of the state’s best team and individual racers, and often considered a “mid-season state meet” since often spans all classes, from 5A-I on down.
Both boys and girls teams from Mountain Pointe are expected to attend. Hanson said he’s heard rumblings from others in the sport that are disappointed that a team like Desert Vista, the big school state champ in three of the last four seasons, won’t be attending.
Hanson said his team has long not bought into the notion that Conley is potentially as important as the state meet.
“We look at it as just another invitational, so much so that we’re not going this year. We look at what’s the best thing for the team.
“Conley as prestigious as it is, as much history and tradition, the bottom line is it’s just another meet,” he added. “There are some people disappointed, and I understand. And yet they understand as coaches, you can’t necessarily go to the well every week.”
Hanson said not attending doesn’t take away from how strong a field Conley produces, but adds that his team has a singular goal beyond Conley or any other regular season meet or individual accomplishment.
“Really, the only thing that truly matters for us, the varsity, is state.”