- By ED PETRUSKA Contributing Writer Pinal Central/Casa Grande Dispatch
SIGNAL PEAK — Expectations are high for this year's Central Arizona College cross country teams. While that is nothing new, eighth-year coach Paul Tavares is counting on a mostly untested batch of runners to keep them in the national championship hunt.
The CAC men won the NJCAA title last year for the third time under Tavares and seventh time in program history. The CAC women finished second at nationals for the fifth time in six years. The Vaqueras have nabbed two national titles, the latest in 2009.
"The goal is always to be among the top teams," Tavares said. "We have the talent on both sides. (The athletes) are very focused and very hard-working."
The men have never finished lower than third since Tavares assumed control of the program in 2010. The Vaqueros were first in 2012 and 2013; second in 2010, 2014 and 2015; and third in 2011.
After a fourth-place finish in 2010, the women took second in each of the next four years and third in 2015.
The Vaqueras return two runners who competed in last year's nationals — Jennifer Maldonado (27th out of 316 starters) and Lara Yazzie (61st).
Nikisha Eagleman did not compete in cross country last year due to injury but is expected to be the Vaqueras' No. 1 runner after taking third in the 10,000 meters at last season's NJCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
Freshmen Alliana Atencio, Shelby Morrison, Mariah Yazzie and Summer Mattia are the top contenders for the other four spots. Mattia is a Vista Grande product who placed 25th in last year's Division II state meet.
Rounding out the women's roster are sophomore Casey Haller and freshmen Paris Chee and Alexus Navarro.
Lansing, Michigan, is the defending NJCAA women's champ. Iowa Central and South Plains, Texas, are expected to be the other leading contenders for the 2017 title.
The top freshmen are 2016 Division II state champion Manuel Olivio-Quinones from Sierra Vista Buena, 2016 Division III state champion Santiago Hardy from Chinle and Ikageng Goarekwa from South Africa.
The roster also includes Belesti Akalu, Darrin Cly, Allen Fowler, Alberto Gonzalez, Poston Butte product Patrick Hughes, Davonte Jett-Reynalds, John Ngaruiya, Isaah Panana-Watewa, Poston Butte product Taylor Schimel and Luis Soto.
Joining CAC as expected contenders for the men's NJCAA crown are Iowa Central, South Plains and Allen, Kansas, along with Paradise Valley of the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference.
Tavares said the key to sustaining his program's success over the years "is recruiting the best Arizona (high school) runners possible." Unlike Iowa Central and South Plains, CAC doesn't have the financial resources to offer scholarships to a multitude of talented foreign athletes, he said.
In particular, Tavares puts a lot of effort into recruiting "the best Native American runners from the Southwest, and we've been getting those athletes," he said.
CAC begins the season Saturday at the UC Riverside Invitational in California. The teams will have five additional meets prior to the Nov. 11 NJCAA Championships in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
To prepare for the rigors of competition, the men ran approximately 1,000 miles and the women logged 500 to 600 during the summer months, Tavares said. Now that formal workouts, which start at 6 a.m., are underway, the Vaqueros average 70 miles and the Vaqueras 50 to 60 per week.
Normal race distances are 8 kilometers (5 miles) for the men and 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) for the women.