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Fryer: Laguna Hills Invitational first big test of the season

STAFF COLUMNIST

A vulture might be hovering over Hawk Hill.

Hawk Hill is where runners’ aspirations can die in the Laguna Hills Invitational.

The Laguna Hills Invitational is Orange County’s first big meet of the cross country season.

And we mean big. The meet, Saturday starting at 7 a.m. at Laguna Hills High, will have more than 5,300 runners representing 148 boys and girls cross country teams. It is the largest field in the event’s 33 years.

Dana Hills has the No. 1-ranked boys and girls teams in Orange County cross country. Both are in the Laguna Hills Invitational. Dana Hills is No. 1 in the CIF-Southern Section Division 1 boys top 10, and its girls team is No. 6 in Division 1, the highest O.C. team in the division.

Other teams entered: Arcadia, a mainstay at the meet, is No. 2 in CIF-SS girls Division 1 and No. 9 in boys Division 1; Brea Olinda’s boys, No. 1 in Division 3 even after the graduation of all-time great Austin Tamagno; Canyon’s girls, No. 4 in Division 2; and JSerra’s girls, No. 2 in Division 4, and its boys team, No. 3 in Division 4.

The Laguna Hills Invitational drew 50 runners in its first year, 1983.

“When we started it was a true cross country meet,” said Laguna Hills coach Chris Lynch, the meet’s chief organizer. He competed in the event as a Laguna Hills athlete in the early 1990s.

“The area around the school back then was called Sheep Hills,” Lynch said. “There would be sheep and runners up there, and that’s it. A lot of that course is gone due to housing and development.”

The current 3-mile course, which starts and ends in Laguna Hills’ on-campus stadium, is roughly equal parts dirt, grass and asphalt. “A little bit of everything,” Lynch said, “which I think people like.”

The course is called The Kevin Dempsey Course, named for Laguna Hills’ former coach of 25 years. It has four big hills.

The biggest is Hawk Hill, named for Laguna Hills’ mascot. It’s at roughly the halfway point of the course.

“Hawk Hill is the crown jewel of the course,” Lynch said. “If you make it up Hawk Hill, you’re halfway home.”

More than 100 volunteers help make the meet go. Lynch’s father Mike was meet co-director until his death in 2005. His mother Susan is a fixture at the meet, working the coaches’ check-in table.

The best place for spectators to watch the race is in the stadium. Not only is the start and finish of the race there, the upper rows provide a view of the hills.

After the Laguna Hills Invitational, other significant meets coming up within the next few weeks include the Woodbridge Classic (next week, at SilverLakes Sports Park in Norco), the Dana Hills Invitational (Sept. 23-24), and the Orange County Championships (Oct. 14-15 at Irvine Park).

The road to the CIF-SS Cross Country Championships, at the Riverside Cross Country Course on Nov. 11 and 12, starts at the Laguna Hills Invitational. That road’s first speed bump is Hawk Hill.

Taking a look around Orange County high school sports:

Carson Branstine, a tennis player from Orange who upset No. 2-seeded Olesya Pervushina of Russia in the U.S. Open junior girls tournament Wednesday, is of freshman age, high school-wise, but is not enrolled at an O.C. high school as she is taking online courses. That’s not uncommon for elite tennis players. Branstine’s 16th birthday is Friday, and she will play another Southern Californian, Kayla Day of Santa Barbara, in the quarterfinals.

• Branstine said she tried to keep the enormity of the potential victory in the back of her mind during the match. “I just played it point by point,” she said. “On the last point, I didn’t even know that I’d won.”

• Branstine’s sister Constance was the Register’s player of the year last school year as a senior at Villa Park. Constance, who now attends UC Irvine, is helping coach her younger sister at the U.S. Open. The Branstines are cousins of Atlanta Braves first baseman and El Modena alum Freddie Freeman.

• Portola, a new school in Irvine, is two seasons away from fielding a varsity football team, but the school’s stadium has been used for varsity football games. The Laguna Hills-Northwood game is there Friday.

• CalHiSports.com’s California football top 25 has Mater Dei at No. 4 and Mission Viejo at No. 5. De La Salle of Concord, Servite’s opponent Friday at Cerritos College, is ranked No. 1 in the state. Orange Lutheran plays at state No. 3 Centennial of Corona on Friday.

• Going into this season, Mater Dei senior Osiris St. Brown appeared to be the best receiver in county football. St. Brown, who committed to Stanford, might not be the best receiver in the family. His younger brother, Amon-Ra St. Brown, a junior at Mater Dei, over two games has 10 receptions for 245 yards and six touchdowns, one or which, a one-handed catch, will be a candidate for play of the year when the season is over.

• Some O.C. football leaders coming into this week: rushing, Alex Jung, Sunny Hills, 372 yards; passing, JT Daniels, Mater Dei, 726 yards; his 12 touchdown passes also is a county high; completions, Cooper Jones, El Toro, 61 (on 109 attempts); and receptions, Grant Calcaterra, Santa Margarita, 22; his 333 receiving yards also leads the county.

Barry Sher, one of John Barnes’ many excellent assistant coaches during Barnes’ long tenure as Los Alamitos football coach, is a consultant for the Kennedy football program. Kennedy coach Sean Clark played at Los Alamitos.

• Saturday in boys water polo: Corona del Mar, No. 5 in the O.C. preseason top 10, at No. 2 Huntington Beach.

• The CIF State office is among high school sports organizations promoting this coming Tuesday as “National Concussion Education Day.” The CIF State office can take action on concussion reduction immediately by ending state football playoffs, the length of which had schools like Mission Viejo playing 16 games last season. The fewer football games, the fewer opportunities for concussions. Simple, yes?

Contact the writer: sfryer@scng.com


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