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Prep Cross Country Outlook

Napa Valley Prep Cross Country Outlook: Runners back on hills and vying for state

From the Napa Sports Report: Prep Sports review series

Napa High cross country head coach Derek Moore said having to run three of its four meets on pavement last spring was a nice change of pace for the Grizzlies.

They hosted two meets along the Vine Trail at Kennedy Park and ran in one on the American Canyon High campus because public parks were closed to the large meets because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They finally got to run on their home course at Alston Park late in the season.

“Our kids didn't pay much mind to the running surface. They were just happy to be competing again. It felt great to be outdoors in the fresh air,” Moore said. “The Kennedy Park course was a beautiful setting. One upside of the pandemic is we have discovered new places and routes to run. We are so fortunate to live where we do.”

Shari Costanzo, who has assumed the Vintage helm while longtime head coach Brian Pruyn takes a one-year leave of absence, said her runners didn’t seem to mind running on sidewalks and across parking lots, either.

“We were so thankful to be back out there racing, but the races were smaller and very different because most of the courses were on school campuses — so we had no hills,” she said. “An advantage was that our racing times were fast, so there were lots of 5K personal records. It was a season of new, on-campus courses, so there were a lot of course records set on courses that we won’t run again. It's fun that these athletes will go down in the record books for those ‘pandemic course’ records.”

She said junior returner Collin Durfee and 2021 graduate Mary Deeik now hold Vintage’s on-campus course records. But she said the Crushers are happy to be navigating changes in topography again.

“We are glad to have the hilly courses back,” she said. “The hills bring an additional challenge that we missed during the pandemic.”

Moore said the Napa High boys leaders by example are seniors Martin Salinas and Logan Walsh.

“They aren't loud or showy. They consistently put in the hard work and I think that makes an impression on their teammates," he said. "They and Eric Aguilar, also a senior, form a strong nucleus on our varsity squad."

The Grizzlies’ girls are led by juniors Annie Scudero and Alondra Palafox-Garcia.

“They bring a ton of great energy to the team,” he said. “Cross country can be hard (but) Annie and Alondra show by their positive attitudes and fun-loving natures that it shouldn't be a drag. We’re also impressed with Melina Sanchez-Bernal, who joined the team as a senior this year. Melina started running on her own during pandemic shutdown and discovered she enjoys the way it makes her feel. We love hearing stories like that.”

Rounding out the Napa High boys are senior Adrian Navarro, juniors Noah Massey and Aidan Smith, sophomores Micah Eisenberg, Antonio Fredrickson, Finn McGrath, Jean-Luc Pijanowski and Thomas Rist, and freshmen Isaiah Rojas, Finnegan Shanahan, Ryan Butler and Theo Maas.

The girls also include juniors Jazmin Damian, Chloe Dinsdale, Heidi Gadasy and Jemma Ceja-Delgado, and sophomores Mila Cornell, Olivia Hall, Sonya Mitchell and Taylor Webster.

Moore said the pandemic still affected the Grizzlies’ turnout in the spring and fall.

“COVID definitely has had an impact on our team, in terms of roster strength,” he said. “In the spring, we lost a number of athletes to other sports when the seasons for all school sports were opened at once. Our team is smaller this fall, but we can't attribute that solely to the pandemic. Another factor was losing a number of kids to graduation. We are very pleased with the team we have now. The kids are working hard, but more importantly, they seem to be having fun.”

Asked who the teams to beat this year in the VVAL are, Moore said it’s hard to say.

“We didn't really have much of a competitive season last year, so comparisons from year-to-year are difficult, and there's been a lot of turnover due to graduations and other reasons,” he said. “We're just trying to stay focused on ourselves and putting in the work. We think if we do that, we will be competitive in league.”

It’s also hard to say who has hopes of getting the state meet at Woodward Park in Fresno, he said.

“It's just so hard to know what the level of competition is out there given how much disruption there has been due to COVID,” Moore said. “Will we even have a state meet this year? Given the topsy-turvy nature of things, I would say Fresno is not on our radar at this time. We're taking things day-to-day. That helps us avoid being too disappointed if we have to pivot due to changing circumstances.”

It’s hard for Costanzo’s Crushers to complain about anything with what their coach is juggling — teaching the first grade at Vichy Elementary, coaching, parenting, and marathon training. She’ll be competing in the Virgin Money London Marathon, part of the inaugural AbbottWMM Wanda Age Group World Championship, this Sunday, Oct. 3 in England.

“Couldn't pass up the opportunity to compete in London,” she said.

The marathon is conveniently right in between this Wednesday’s Vine Valley Athletic League Meet No. 1 at Maxwell Park in Sonoma and the next one, Oct. 13 at Alston Park.

Costanzo said she has a bunch of enthusiastic seniors this season who do an amazing job as leaders.

“Drew Holloran, Maggie Chapin, Liam Alexander, Nick Dominici and Nick Malito have stepped up to lead the team at meets and practices,” she said. “From leading the workouts to organizing team runs to just being amazing role models, they each have such unique leadership skills and the team just naturally looks to them as leaders.”

Vintage also has two new senior members who have also wrestled for the school, Niko Smith and Anthony Gutierrez.

“They started putting in work early in the summer, and it's going to be exciting to watch them continue to grow as runners this season,” she said.

The coach said Milani Harris and a wrestler who is not new to cross country, Natalie Scott, are seniors who love to encourage others.

“It's always fun to see what the seniors decide to do with their season and where it will take them,” Costanzo said.

She said Durfee and fellow junior Susanna Nuno have really stepped up to help lead the team, as well.

Costanzo said she took juniors Lilla Kasper, Sophia Notaro, Troy McDonald-Doxee and Aiden Rutherford, sophomore Sophie Nasiri, freshman Valentin Arango, Alexander and Holloran to a running camp in Yosemite over the summer.

Costanzo said her program’s numbers are down a bit this season, but thinks it will pick up next year.

“Now that the athletes are back in school, they have the chance for those face-to-face conversations, so the word got out that cross country is the place to be,” she said. “One-third of our team is made up of freshmen who are ready to build their strength, endurance and speed, and we have veterans who are ready to show them how we work.”

After a strange season with almost no weekend meets or postseason competition, she said it’s hard to tell which are the teams to beat this year in the VVAL.

“We don't really know what our competition looks like at this point, so we can't wait to compete in a normal league meet. We are all ready to race again, and we all have new athletes,” she said. “I think that our team numbers are down across the board, but we also have new athletes who are just learning about what they can do, and we're going to get to see that this season. So it's going to be awesome to just have them all out there racing again.”

As far as state meet hopefuls, she said a few have written it down as a goal.

“It's always our goal to get the whole team there, and they just need to trust the process and put in the work,” she said.

The return of the Lagoon Valley Classic on Sept. 4 in Vacaville saw the Crushers’ varsity boys place 18th out of 27 teams behind top finishers Durfee, Malito and Rutherford, and the varsity girls place 16th behind Notaro, senior Maggie Chapin and Nuno. Arango placed in the top 40 in the freshman race.

The Vintage girls’ other members are junior Perla Castillo, sophomore Naomi Tessier, and freshmen Aina Akaboshi, Eliza Chapin, Maddie Chiu and Quetzali Hernandez.

The other Vintage boys are senior Nick Dominici, juniors Jackson Travers, Max Kaplan, Nico DeLeon and Tanner Henry, sophomores Brady Lowell, Nathan Luna and Zachary Murrell, and freshmen Alec Rutherford, Alex Neujahr, Jack Heffner, Soren DeYoung and Joshua Miles.

New Justin-Siena head coach Ali Dragoo is making her high school coaching debut, having previously been a triathlon coach and more recently coach of the sixth- to eighth-grade track and field team at St. John's Lutheran School.

Dragoo competed in basketball, volleyball and cross country at Anderson High near Redding. She went on to compete in several Ironman Triathlons, finishing the 140.6 triathlon four times (2013-2016) and the 70.3 triathlon four times (2013, 2016, 2018 and 2019). She has also completed three marathons (2012, 2015, and 2018).

“I am enjoying coaching at Justin-Siena and feel lucky to have this group of kids,” she said. “They are fantastic. It is a perfect fit for me.”

Justin-Siena’s team captains are senior Devon De Los Santos for the varsity and junior Owen Fortner for the JV.

“Devon is a strong runner and a natural leader who has been on the team all four years. He leads workouts, leads warm-ups and cool-downs, and plans long runs on weekends. He is a great motivator and has positive energy that keeps everyone going,” Dragoo said. “Owen helps me with all workouts for the JV team. He is fun, insightful and a good communicator. In addition, he always steps up to help.”

The Braves also have three recent alumni of the program volunteering as coaches this season, in Lauren Aubert, Jacob Guiducci and Vishnu Vijayakumar.

“I’m thankful for their expertise and training insight because it has helped our team tremendously — not to mention, they are incredibly fast,” Dragoo said of the trio.

Her assistant coach is Todd Wenzel, father of sophomore Braves runner Charlie Wenzel.

Dragoo also has what a post-COVID coach would want — a better turnout than before the pandemic.

“I’m happy to say that our turnout is stronger than ever,” she said. “I have 30 runners on the team and that is significantly more than previous years. The students are thankful to be back into full-time sports.”

She said every team will present strong challenges in the VVAL, but that Casa Grande and Vintage would have to be the teams to beat.

“We have a strong team and we want to qualify for state. The last time Justin-Siena went to state was 2017. We have our sights set on it now,” she said. “Our team motto is a theme I learned from my Ironman experience: Anything is possible.”

Rounding out the Justin-Siena boys are seniors Jack Duffy and Dexter Kelly, juniors Jack Carey and Cameron Wang, and sophomores Giorgio Baldini and Wyatt Paulson. Running for the girls are seniors Ainsley Adams and Katherine Heffernan, junior Olivia Janerico, sophomore Quinn Edie, and freshmen Lily Dominguez, Paige Helms and Hailey Schuemann.

American Canyon head coach Brad Rowell has a 13-member girls team with no seniors and a 22-member boys team with a whopping 13 seniors.

He said the girls are led by Cassidy McCamish, Emma Piazza and Julia Ramirez.

“All three of them are sophomores who ran in the spring during our shortened COVID season,” he said. “They all ran during the summer and I've seen big improvements from all three in the early part of this season.

“On the boys side it is a completely different story. Our team is 60% seniors, with many of them having run cross country for all four years. It is too early to tell what our final varsity roster will look like, but as you can guess the majority of the team will be seniors.”

Jahir Madrigal, Andres Cardenas, Elvin Fuerte and Alfons McCoy are all seniors who ran cross country and track and field last year and are looking to improve their times from the previous seasons. Junior Emanuel Barajas is keeping up with the seniors and will likely grab a spot on the varsity team.

The rest of the Wolves’ girls are juniors Sadia Diouf, Jessica Estrada, Jahleya Hudson, Briana Hernandez-Lopez, Telorah Kawakami and Danielle Yamada, sophomores Aniya Cruz and Mya Santiago, and freshmen Ellaine Fuerte and Hannah Wildes.

The rest of the boys are seniors Jerwin Buncio, Ian Galera, Keanu Kawakami, Ethan Luong, Roniel Maningding, Xavier Navarro, Anthony Ramos, Zakary Raymond and Collin Yan, junior Austin Graeber, sophomores Joshua Galeotti, Jamir Harris, Jacob Phillips and Rigoberto Tejata, and freshmen Mason Brito, Calix Mintalar and Jaden Tonsager.

sports therapist and former elite athlete Karen Mack of Well lab (welllab.co.uk), is adamant sporting activities can be a great way to get the endorphins pumping and find a sense of balance as well.

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Sports Reporter

Andy Wilcox is a sportswriter-photographer for the Napa Valley Register. He's had similar roles in Walnut Creek, Grass Valley, Auburn, Tracy and Patterson. He grew up in Ohio. His wife, Laura, is a pastry chef. He also enjoys playing guitar and piano.

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