What follows here is not the final word. The final word shows up on Saturday, and not a day sooner. What you'll find here is one person's vantage point on what Saturday could hold.
Before diving into the state analysis, I want to mention a little piece of information that came my way from David Shapiro of the AIA. Clarifying about a point I mentioned in last week's articles, he mentioned that one-race rule had been removed from the sectional races this year. When in place, the rule was as much about safety as anything. In the past, some schools were evidently bringing competitors to sectional competitions who had little or no running background. So, I used the AIA information as my source on that, but it was, in fact, old information. I apologize for any confusion that may have occasioned.
In any case, it's state week, and we want to dive into each of the four boys' state races with this article. I'll move from Division IV to Division I with this article.
It's a battle that's been brewing all season long. If you push my back up against the wall and make me name a favorite, my choice would be Northwest Christian. The front group of Luke Poarch, Jonah Archer, and Glenn Thomas is as good as they come in Division 4. NW Christian is solid enough at 4 and 5, but--like so many other small-school teams--they can't afford any major lapses.
At the D4 level, depth is a matter of perpetual concern. If one of your big guns has a poor meet, it's typically something you don't have the depth to recover from.
Hoping to take a crack at the NW Christian monster are, from up north, Ganado and Northland Preparatory, and, from points around Phoenix, North Phoenix Prep, Valley Christian, and Chandler Preparatory.
Ganado beat Northland Prep at their sectional meet, but the scoring between the two may favor NP in a larger meet kind of settings such as state provides. North Phoenix Prep, Valley Christian, and Chandler Prep are each credible teams, but any of the five teams mentioned here figures to need a perfect storm of a meet to topple Northwest Christian. On top of a perfect storm, they may need a item or two outside their own control to fall their way.
The read on teams from up north is always a bit dicier than the read from teams around Phoenix. Elevation and more difficult courses up north, with limited opportunities to race in the lower, flatter parts of the state, mean we're always guessing a little about teams from Flagstaff and the reservations.
Jon Barney of Veritas Prep figures as the individual favorite. Thomas Koska and Jonah Archer are proximate threats who, should either bust out a race for the ages, could threaten Barney for the crown, but Barney has run the table against D4 competition during the season. It will come as a surprise, though not necessarily a stunner, should someone find the key to beating Barney on Saturday.
The travail of the season has left us with a well-defined crowd of three contenders (Three is a crowd, right?). From the Tucson area, we have Salpointe Catholic. From just south of the Utah border, we have Page. And, from all the points in between, we have Shadow Mountain. It's tough to envision any other team in the state beating all three of these teams on Saturday.
On paper, Saltpointe Catholic figures as your favorite. But the same thing we mentioned above about Ganado and Northland Prep applies here to Page. You never know exactly how good Page is doing to be until you see them run at state. If Salpointe is figuring this one's in the bag, they've already made a critical mistake. Page has a history at state, and it's long enough for Salpointe to be aware of it.
Shadow Mountain ranks as more of a long shot. Nate Pestka is a legitimate threat--if not quite the favorite--to win the individual crown. That sets SM up well, but they'll need more than they've extracted from places 2 through 5 so far this season to take the win. On the other hand, it's not so much more they need that you can automatically rule it out of the question. There was a hint out of the sectional meet, however, that SM may not be 100% healthy coming into the state meet. If not, it definitely impacts their chances. For that matter, though, the same observation applies to Page.
In terms of individuals running, and performing according to season standards, at the sectional meets, Salpointe ranks at the top of the pile. That's one more reason to name them as the state favorites.
Individually, Cesar Diaz of Mingus Union has run very well all season long. As you think of favorites, Diaz should be reckoned as the favorite. Nate Pestka is probably next best in the field, and with a chance to win it all. Salpointe figures to be placing high across the board, but the Lancers have no obvious individual title contender. Caleb Anson of Snowflake is probably the most likely option aside from Diaz and Pestka to pick as a legitimate title contender. If Diaz was laying off at the sectional meet it may not mean anything, but Anson was only two seconds behind Diaz there. On the other hand, Diaz has not been as dominant in more recent performances as he was earlier in the season.
All that to say, "Stick around, it may get interesting before the D3 individual title is settled."
In D2 boys, you have one clear team favorite and three long shots. Flagstaff is the consensus favorite, and their performance at the Rose Mofford Sectional (you know, the perfect score and all) did nothing to diminish their status. In line behind Flagstaff, and probably hoping an unexpected break or two falls their way, are Campo Verde, Ironwood Ridge, and Gilbert.
Of note, Gilbert handled Campo Verde rather easily at the Crossroads Sectional. That represents something of a reversal of form from what we've seen from both teams earlier in the season. If Gilbert is peaking now, they certainly found an excellent time to do it. If Campo Verde is a little spent at this point, it's a tough time to be running out of energy. But, we'll wait for this weekend's results to determine what's really the case between these two teams.
Ironwood Ridge crushed the Buena region, but Flagstaff will be a much taller order.
Speaking of Ironwood Ridge, Logan Marek checks in as a small favorite for the individual title. Marek ran four seconds ahead of Terrence Keyes at Desert Twilight, and that's probably the best basis of comparison we have between these two individuals. There appears to be something of a chasm, a Grand Canyon if you will, between Marek, Keyes, and the rest of the field. It will go down as one of the great upsets of Arizona cross country history if someone else wins.
We didn't see the top guns from Desert Vista at the Crossroads Sectional. Presumably, that means DV didn't feel they needed to run their top guns to win. And, they were right about that. Overwhelmingly right, in fact.
Just as presumably, we will see DV's top guns at state. Heading off Desert Vista at the golf course isn't going to be easy. Of all your Saturday favorites, DV is likely the most prohibitive favorite. You won't find any chinks in their armor hanging around the detritus of the season, either.
That's not to suggest there aren't any other good teams in the hunt. There are. It's just that we haven't witnessed the kind of firepower from Highland, Red Mountain, Mesa Mountain View, or Brophy College Preparatory that we've seen from DV. In all likelihood, these four schools stage an interesting battle for second, while Desert Vista plays king of the mountain. It doesn't have to end up that way, of course, but that's looking very much like the most likely scenario at state.
If you have any reservations about DV, they probably have something to do with how little their top guys have raced since Desert Twilight.
Noah Jodon looks like a good case for claiming status as the individual favorite, but this one comes with a lot more uncertainty than the team race. Still very much in the hunt are Elijah Davis, Brady Eagar, and Trevor Querciagrossa. If Jodon runs a near approximation of his best race, he probably wins. But, the slightest mistake or the slightest case of being out of sync on Saturday leaves the title up for grabs--at least among this crew of four.