The Nordhoff cross-country team gathers for a group photo during its recent training camp at Mammoth Lake.
Ted Cotti, Ojai Valley News correspondent
Since 1991, the road to the postseason for cross-country teams in the Tri-County Athletic Association (TCAA) has been through Ojai.
Boys’ and girls’ teams from the TCAA (separated into the Frontier and Tri-Valley Leagues for all other sports) know year in and year out they will have to get past Nordhoff High School, The Thacher School and the challenging Bill Wadlington Memorial three-mile
cross-country course at Lake Casitas, if they hope to advance.
This year will likely be no different.
Foothill Tech appears to be the prohibitive favorite to repeat as boys’ and girls’ champion, but coach Ken Reeves’ Dragons know better than to overlook Thacher’s boys’ and Nordhoff’s girls’ squads.
Fred Coleman and Sarah Del Vecchio served as co-coaches for both teams at Thacher last year, but now Coleman is working solely with the boys while Del Vecchio devotes her attention to the girls.
The boys’ squad was second in league behind Foothill last year and took seventh in both CIF and state. They graduated arguably the greatest runner in school history, Peter Callan, who set school records for Mt. SAC, state and the mile and two-mile on the track before heading to Colorado College, where Coleman predicts he will be “a big star.” However, everyone else from that squad is back, including senior captain and Ojai native Ryan Jackson and juniors Rico Lopec, Deison Chadwick and Nick Amano.
“We also have a sophomore returner and four freshmen coming in, so it’s an exciting time at Thacher,” said Coleman.
While Nordhoff has captured 18 CIF and 11 state championships, Thacher has one girls’ CIF title, a second for boys at CIF, a second and fourth for girls at state and a fourth for boys’ at state.
“I can’t train my athletes like the Kenyans, by attrition,” Coleman continued. “My ultimate goal each and every single year is that they pursue running after their time at Thacher, which means that they graduate healthy and have a great attitude toward running.”
Del Vecchio, who was the head coach at Thacher before taking a leave and then returning as an assistant, shares much of Coleman’s philosophy.
“Fred is a wonderful man and an excellent coach,” Del Vecchio said. “The girls had a one-week camp before school just like his teams always did, and we started by building up our miles. I mixed in a little speed, took them to the (Malibu) sand dunes one day (for repeats) and tried to keep them off the cement as much as possible.”
Thacher’s girls placed second at league and advanced to CIF last year. They return their No. 2 runner, Caroline Del Vecchio, the coach’s daughter.
She should have company at the front of the pack from Luca Pieretti, a freshman from Santa Barbara and junior Pria Koll, from Japan. “Pria came back and all of a sudden has found some wheels,” Del Vecchio said. Others to watch out for include Lily Harding and Sarah Driscoll.
“The girls want to be successful; they’ve worked hard and stayed positive,” Del Vecchio explained.
Meanwhile, Nordhoff’s boys’ and girls’ teams, neither of which qualified for the postseason last year, are excited by the sudden influx of young talent.
“I can’t remember when we have had this many freshmen and sophomores fighting for varsity spots this early in the season,” said 10th year head coach Dave Settem. Settem will be coaching both the boys and girls again this season alongside fellow NHS teachers Fender Carnine, who is now a co-head coach and Shawn Jackson. Former Ranger runner Javier Quiroz will assist.
“The boys won’t be super, but they’ll be strong and will definitely be in the fight for a CIF spot, while the girls, I think, will surprise people and could be one of the better teams in league,” Settem predicted.
The Lady Rangers will be led by junior transfer Carmen Pratt. “She’ll be our No. 1,” said Settem, who said he also expects immediate contributions from freshmen Jasmine Ramirez, Yami Herrera and Carla Rodas, as well as sophomore Maria Ruvalcaba.
“They’re not just good runners, they’re good athletes,” Settem added.
The top returners on the girls’ side include junior Sarah Avdeeff and senior Rebecca Gorman. “It’s a hardworking and fun group, and it should be a real exciting season,” Settem said.
The Nordhoff boys will be led by seniors Angel Esperanza and Mason Velasquez and sophomore Ry Johnson. “Angel should run in the 16s (for three miles) if he does everything he’s supposed to do, and Mason could go low too,” predicted Settem. “Then we have a little gap, but we have a slew of freshmen and sophomores biting at each others’ heels for that fourth and fifth varsity spot.
“If that group isn’t great this year, they will be the next couple of years,” Settem added.
In addition to league meets, the Ranger schedule includes trips to the Seaside Invite, the Ojai Invite, the Clovis Invite, the Brea Olinda Invite and the Mt. SAC Invite.
“I know Fred (Coleman) doesn’t think kids should race that much,” admitted Settem, “but honestly we get some of our best workouts in those invites, and I can always keep kids out and rest them a couple of times. We’ve always peaked at the right time.”
TCAA teams will meet three times this season: at Camino Real in Ventura, at Elkins Ranch in Fillmore and finally at Lake Casitas.
“The coaches want the first meet to be close to the ocean because temperatures could be pretty high early in the fall, and we wanted a flat course so new kids could have a positive experience,” Coleman explained. “Elkins is a little tougher, and Kim (Tafoya, Fillmore’s coach) has done just a great job with that course, and finally, Casitas is a true test.”
League finals count double, and the top five teams advance to CIF prelims, although the league is currently petitioning to add a sixth.
“It’s only fair,” said Coleman. “We’re the strongest league in the state, and all the other sports have half of the teams advance to playoffs, so why shouldn’t we?”
CIF prelims and finals will move from Mt. SAC (which is experiencing construction) to Riverside this year. State will again be held at Woodward Park in Clovis.