Desert Vista High School’s cross country program has long been recognized as one of the top teams in the state.
Year in and year out, both the boys and girls are consistently in the mix for a state title.
It’s been three years since the girls program last hoisted the state-championship trophy. Until now.
Led by sisters Lauren and Grace Ping, the Thunder girls won their first state title since 2016 on Saturday, Nov. 16 at the AIA State Cross Country Meet at Cave Creek Golf Course in Phoenix. The boys placed second overall.
“Our goal was to walk out of there with two state championships,” Desert Vista cross country coach Chris Hanson said. “Every race we go in to we have the mindset to win. We accomplished that on the girls side and on the boys side, even though we fell short, I thought we ran better than we did when we won the title last year.”
Lauren, a freshman, place first overall in the 5K race, finishing in 17 minutes, 36.9 seconds. Grace, a junior, finished second in 17:57.8.
The sisters transferred into the Desert Vista program before the 2019 school year began. They’ve run for programs in both Minnesota and Utah before ending up at Desert Vista this season.
Even while battling injuries throughout the year, Grace continued to dominate each race she ran along with Lauren. When the two initially transferred in, Hanson knew the type of success they had at their previous destinations.
He quickly recognized the impact they would have on the Thunder program.
“These girls have been running for a long time and in different programs,” Hanson said. “They found success quickly. They’re extremely talented girls on a national scale. They were a big help for our team.”
The Thunder girls captured the state title despite missing one of its top runners in senior Katy Clausen, who had battled pneumonia the week of the race and wasn’t able to compete.
Hanson relied heavily on younger runners in the state meet, as all but one were either juniors or freshman.
Emily Littlefield, a freshman, was the next Desert Vista runner to finish behind the Ping sisters. Littlefield finished ninth overall. Olivia Thatcher, a junior, finished 16th while freshman Bailee Christofis placed 21st. Josey Gregory, the only senior to run for Desert Vista, finished 23rd followed by junior Eve Boardman in 62nd.
“The girls stepped it up and got it done,” Hanson said. “They hadn’t won for a couple of years but regardless of the adversity we faced, they went out and accomplished their goals. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
Desert Vista beat out Highland with 49 points to win the state title. On the boys side, the Thunder and Hawks switched places, as Highland claimed the title and Desert Vista placed second.
“Highland was just the better team on that day,” Hanson said.
Desert Vista was led on the boys’ side seniors Demetris Love and Sammy Van Alstine. Love finished sixth overall with a time of 15 minutes, 52.1 seconds while Val Alstine finished in 16:03.9.
The duo were the only two seniors running for Desert Vista at the state meet, as the rest of the runners were underclassmen along with one junior.
Sophomores Noah Jodon, Ethan Bukowski and Johnathan Estrada finished 14th, 16th and 21st, respectively. Junior Chris Broze placed 40th for Desert Vista while sophomore Ryan Hoyt was 56th.
“Honestly, I think those boys feel disappointed they didn’t win a sixth straight,” Hanson said. “But they haven’t. We are extremely proud of them.”
The amount of returning talent on both the girls and boys’ sides have set up Desert Vista to once again be a contender in 2020. But that isn’t uncommon for the Thunder program.
The boys have won 10 titles since 2002, including four straight from 2015-18. They’ve placed second four times since 2004, third twice and fourth place once in 2009. Meanwhile, the girls clinched their fourth state title on Nov. 16. The first three came in 2013, 2014 and 2016. They’ve also placed second six times, as well as third and fourth on two occasions.
Hanson contributes the Thunder’s history of success to the team’s overall focus each year. With new runners continuously joining the program and adopting the same mindset of success as those who return, Hanson doesn’t expect his team to slow down anytime soon.
“Our focus isn’t on the product, we focus on the process,” Hanson said. “Our culture teaches us that we have to go to work every day and put in the time and the effort to be successful.
“We don’t necessarily do what we do because of talent, it’s because we raise the bar every year. It’s doing the little things better every day. We want them to be the best version of themselves they can be.”