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St. Margaret's, JSerra go for state three-peat
FRESNO – When the St. Margaret's boys and JSerra girls cross country teams toe the starting line for their races Saturday in the CIF State Championships, they will do so with more in common than being located – just two miles apart – in San Juan Capistrano.
Both programs have a chance to make county history on the scenic Woodward Park course by winning three consecutive state titles.
Since the inception of the CIF State Cross Country Championships in 1987, Dana Hills (2007-09) is the only boys' team in county history to have won three consecutive state titles. The Dolphins, who won their first state title in 1988, have won a county-best four state titles, with Laguna Beach (1989, 2004 and 2009) second with three.
The Tartans entered this season ranked No. 1 in the state in Division 5 despite having to replace two of their top three runners from last season: two-time Division 5 individual champion Billy Gaudreau, the Register's 2011 Cross Country Athlete of the Year, who is now attending Harvard; and Paul Brenneman, who was fifth at last year's state final and is now at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
St. Margaret's was dealt another blow just before the season started. Talented junior Hunter Edington, the team's projected No. 2 returning runner, decided not to compete in cross country so he could focus on lacrosse.
A 21-point loss to Crean Lutheran at the first Academy League cluster meet seemed to signal that the Tartans might not win their fourth consecutive league title.
But St. Margaret's battled back, and it edged Crean Lutheran in the second league meet by four points, setting up a league finals showdown between the teams.
With senior Brandon Price winning the individual league title and strong top-10 performances turned in by sophomore Collin Price, Brandon's brother, and seniors Sebastian Luna and Garrett Corwin, St. Margaret's slipped by the Saints, 33-35, to maintain its reign atop the Academy League.
"We saw the turnaround when we had some guys get healthy," Tartans co-coach Dylan Wade said. "We got a lot of confidence from league finals."
Last week at the CIF-SS Divisional Finals, the Tartans faced off with Flintridge Prep in a head-to-head battle of the top two teams in the state in Division 5. Once again led by Brandon Price and impressive showings by the supporting cast, St. Margaret's produced a 15-point victory and its third consecutive CIF-SS Division 5 title.
"The team took the challenge and showed its resiliency and heart," Wade said. "We're peaking at the right time, which is good news going forward."
Brandon Price says he is hungry to be help St. Margaret's join Woodcrest Christian (2005-09) as the only teams to win at least three consecutive state titles in Division 5.
"I've been on two state-title winning teams and I really want a third one," Price said.
In addition to making history with a third consecutive state title, JSerra would join another select county group with a victory today. Corona del Mar (1992, 1999-2000, 2005-06, 2008-09) and Newport Harbor (1987-88, 1991, 2007) are the only other county girls programs with more than two state titles.
Injuries and illnesses hampered JSerra throughout much of the regular season, but the Lions persevered. Key contributions from sophomores Ashley Geisler and Brooke Kunzelman, along with senior Colby Lindholm and a deep roster, helped keep them afloat.
With Geisler winning her first individual league title, the Lions captured the Trinity League team title.
"This year has almost felt like holding the team together with twine and glue sometimes," Lions coach Marty Dugard said. "This group cares about each other and nurtures one another, which is inspirational."
That inspiration was displayed at the CIF-SS Division 4 finals. The Lions were without senior Caitlin Nilssen and junior Hannah Hunsaker, who were both in walking boots. Juniors Kylee Fracassi (hip) and Hannah Clifton (knee) competed but were less than 100 percent.
Yet the Lions put together another gritty effort, placing four runners in the top 30 and outlasting Mayfield of Pasadena (ranked No. 2 in the CIF-SS Division 4) by 11 points to win the CIF-SS title for a third consecutive season.
Dugard, who was optimistic that Hunsaker will be able to compete today, has been pleased with the team's response to injuries and pressure situations.
"We needed to be pushed like this to know that someone is breathing down our necks," Dugard said. "When we get to Fresno, anything can happen and we have to know that we need to do whatever it takes to win because every point matters."