.......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... .......... ..........Death, taxes and Los Alamos challenging for cross-country state championships.
Those are among the very constants in life, at least for the more than the past decade.
Both the boys and the girls Hilltoppers have had some spot on the podium every year dating back to 2008 – the most distant past year for which full records are available.
During that time, the girls have won seven state championships – consecutively from 2009 through 2015, while the boys have won five.
It’s a remarkable run of consistency for both genders in the same sport.
And it’s no accident, said Steven Montoya, the program’s new co-head coach, who moves up after four years as an assistant coach.
“I think we’re blessed to have the kids that we have,” said Montoya, who was the Socorro cross-country coach for seven years before coming to Los Alamos. “We have 40 boys and similar numbers at the middle school. To have that many kids come out and be interested in the sport is encouraging. It’s an incredible advantage.”
And it is quite a change from what he was used to with the Warriors down south.
“In Socorro, I was scouring the halls looking for kids and trying to convince them they weren’t going to die,” Montoya said. “It’s cool that we have kids who are into it. The middle school does a good job of preparing the kids. Families in Los Alamos are active. We live in a community where people run and ride their bikes. They prioritize fitness. It’s a lifestyle.”
The success is there in part because expectations year in and year out are so high, said Kathy Hipwood, fellow co-head coach.
“There’s definitely something to that because the starting point is high,” she said. “And maybe they don’t even think about that part of it, but that’s where they all work from.”
And with the state meet approaching in about a month, the teams are really starting to amp up their preparation, both mentally and physically.
“I think as the season goes on, they start to feel more pressure,” Hipwood said. “We try to downplay that, and try to get them to stay healthy and continue doing the best way they can and let things fall the way they will. We talk about it some, but we don’t focus on that piece.”
As for the teams, the girls are looking to get back to the state championship after three consecutive runner-up finishes to rival Albuquerque Academy.
“They’re looking really great,” Hipwood said. “The girls have been really excited and they get all get along. We had a really good turnout over the summer. And we’re looking to build over last year. We’re really pleased with how hard they’re working and their motivation.”
The team lost only one senior and they return the individual runner-up in Norissa Valdez, who has a shot at taking the gold this year.
“She has that possibility,” Hipwood said. “We almost hate to say that. They feel a lot of pressure and she’s still only a sophomore. But she’s really fit and has worked hard. She’s a very, very competitive girl. If things fall right, absolutely.”
Valdez’ work ethic helps fuel the rest of the squad.
“Norissa is motivated and hungry, and working hard for it,” Hipwood said. “She sets a tone in her competitiveness. Those hungry eyes and desire.”
She’s just one of the team’s leaders, however.
Juniors Lidia Appel and Hannah Gartz are the team’s veterans to whom the other girls look up.
“We have a few older girls on the team and they kind of lead in little different ways,” Hipwood said. “And they push each other, but support each other.”
For the boys, who are coming off a state championship, it’s more of a rebuilding process as the team is replacing four members of the squad.
But top runner Rafael Sanchez returns and is already running strong, Montoya said, as is Steve Strevell, who finished fifth a year ago.
Freshman Wyatt Cionek has already contributed to the mix, while the next four runners tend to run strongly as a pack
“We’re one of the deepest teams in New Mexico,” Montoya said. “Our varsity has run the same squad three times and they pack very well. We don’t have certain kids who stands from the number four, five six or seven. We have a collection of four boys who are almost interchangeable. Our top three pretty consistent. They run as a pack and run well together, and are friends.”