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For the first time in school history, the Pecos girls cross-country team will enter Saturday’s state meet as defending champions.
But the Panthers are also in a better position than most to make good on a repeat attempt.
The team – made up mostly of volleyball players for Pecos’ powerhouse squad in that sport – did not lose any of its top seven runners.
“They all seem pretty excited about it,” said coach Patrick Ortiz. “Some were a little slower to get back into the running this summer than others were, but they’re all peaking it out and doing their running now.”
Juggling two sports that necessitate different fitness requirements and practice regimens is a challenge, Ortiz said, but the athletes seem to be handling it quite well.
“I have three girls who are not in volleyball,” he said. “I’ve been pretty blessed. The volleyball coach, we get along. We’ve come to a consensus of some type. We figure out a good schedule during the week. It gets complicated when we have a tournament weekend or have a meet and a game on the same day, but this year we’ve adjusted to that pretty well.”
The team is facing distinct challenges this season as they now face the expectations of being defending champions.
“There’s a little bit more of a spotlight for the girls this year,” Ortiz said. “Last year, we were under the radar a little bit, but that was the first time in school history that they’d ever won.”
It’s different now that they’re wearing the mantel of winner.
“This year, they have a target on their back and they know teams are working hard to take it from us,” Ortiz said. “They’re a little scared, a little excited. They know they have to be perfect.”
Keeping them focused on their running has been Ortiz’s main task, he said
“It’s a normal thing, it’s not out of the ordinary,” Ortiz said. “We just try to tell them that they don’t have to feel like they have to take over the world. We keep them focused on little goals each week.”
The Panthers faced a mighty challenge in the state meet last year from the Academy of Technology and the Classics, but won 36-39.
The Phoenix also return their top seven runners, which should make for an interesting showdown come Saturday.
Pecos rolls with individual champ Vanessa Dominguez, while Mistidawn Roybal, Kianna Quintana and Savannah Ortiz all finished in the top seven; ATC had Maggie Rittmeyer as the runner-up, Noelani Van Loon third and Josette Gurule 10th.
Where Pecos could be much improved this season is with Loryn Trujillo, who was 23rd a year ago.
“The reason why we would have a good chance to repeat is Loryn Trujillo,” Ortiz said. “She was running sixth or seventh for us last year, and she worked really hard this summer and really put herself in our top five girls. She made the most advances in the summer.”
On the boys side of things, the Panthers know what the girls are going through, having gone back-to-back-to-back as champs from 2015 to 2017.
But their chances of moving up from their runner-up finish last season took a hit before the season started as senior Isaiah Armijo, who was fifth last season, and Antonio Garcia, who was 21st as a freshman, were injured in an auto accident. While both are recovering well from their injuries, they cannot play sports until the end of the year, Ortiz said.
That left a big void behind senior leaders Devin Gonzales, who was seventh, and Keith Flores, who was 13th.
“We’ve had four or five freshmen who accepted the program and stepped up well, and they’re running well,” Ortiz said, but replacing athletes like Armijo and Garcia has been a difficult task.
Still, he said, outside of an outstanding Navajo Pine squad, positions on the podium are wide open.
“I was kind of worried a little bit in the beginning of the year,” Ortiz said. “I was worried about their performance and the experience that they didn’t have. But they really enjoy running. We’ll see. The boys this year, it’s pretty much open. Navajo Pine is pretty stellar. I don’t think anyone will catch them but, after that, anybody that shows up has a chance.”
WHAT: New Mexico High School State Cross-Country Championships
WHEN: Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
WHERE: Rio Rancho High School