Cross country: LA girls like their chances to reclaim state title

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By Mike Cote

Some may have thought that when Kathy Hipwood said the Belen Eagles shouldn’t be overlooked heading into the 2007 state Class AAAA girls cross country championship race, she was being polite.

Apparently, though, Hipwood was doing more than trying to avoid giving the Eagles locker room fodder, and she alone may have seen the Eagles as a legitimate state title threat.

Of course, Belen proved Hipwood, the co-head coach of the Los Alamos Hilltopper cross country program correct on all counts, topping all comers at the state championship race, held at Rio Rancho.

For the first time since state classes were realigned in 2000, someone other than the Hilltoppers or the Albuquerque Academy Chargers is going in as the reigning Class AAAA girls champion. Los Alamos had won six of the previous seven titles before Belen’s victory last season.

This season, however, the Hilltopper girls are determined to get back to championship form.

Heading into the season opener, Saturday’s University of New Mexico Invitational, Los Alamos feels ready to get the ball rolling on its 2008 season.

“I feel a lot more fit and the girls in general are a lot more fit,” Los Alamos senior Ariana Rowberry said. “Our goal is to win state. We feel we’re in a better position to do that this year.”

Rowberry is one of three returning seniors who spent time with the varsity squad last season, along with Adrienne Larson and Hannah Little.

Los Alamos had a couple of key losses off the 2007 squad, most notably No. 2 runner Margaret Wood, who finished fourth among team runners at last season’s meet.

But the Hilltoppers have some solid returners coming back as well.

Along with Rowberry (20th at state in 2007), Little (24th) and Larson (26th), Los Alamos will bring back Megan Reader, now a sophomore, who started her freshman year on junior varsity but worked her way into the varsity lineup at about the midway point of the season and cracked the top four at the 2007 District 2AAAA race.

Victorial Honnell, a sophomore who is competing for the first season, was Los Alamos’ second finisher (sixth overall) at a preseason scrimmage Aug. 23. Sophomore Victoria Trujillo was also up with the varsity for several meets in 2007 and incoming freshman Elizabeth Brug will also be pushing for a starting nod.

The squad has already shown flashes of what it can do this preseason.

“The time trial last week was really great,” Hipwood said. “It was a big improvement over last year. This weekend is the first time they’ll be tested. Our biggest thing is to try to get everyone to run with enough confidence.”

Even with a solid top-to-bottom order as the Hilltoppers appear to have, the star of the show is Holly Walker.

Walker, a junior this season, burst out in her sophomore year to become one of the top runners in Class AAAA. She started off 2007 like gangbusters, taking second at UNM’s Invitational behind only elite runner Rachel Velarde and would go on to finish the season as the AAAA runner-up behind Santa Teresa’s Jackie Campos.

Heading into this season, Walker is in great shape and is motivated. Should she be able to stay healthy, she may be ready to take the next step, become one of the elite runners in New Mexico and possibly even join the likes of Magdalena Sandoval and Kristen Hemphill as one of the great all-time runners in Los Alamos history.

“She’s definitely fit,” Hipwood said of Los Alamos’ No. 1. “Now she’s got to put herself there mentally. Each time she races, she has to see herself as one of those top girls without putting pressure on herself. The work is already there.”

Walker and the rest of the squad will get to see early this season exactly where they stand in relation to the big hitters around the state and even in Colorado.

Following the UNM race, which will feature the likes of Academy, Belen, Eldorado and La Cueva, among others, Los Alamos heads to the regional Liberty Bell Invitational in Denver, then two weeks later makes an appearance at the Academy Invitational, which usually attracts some of the top Albuquerque-area schools.

The District 2AAAA meet is scheduled for Nov. 1 at Capital, a week before the state meet. The Hilltoppers haven’t lost — nor been seriously challenged — at a district race since joining 2AAAA in 2000.

The challenge for the squad this season will to pack well enough 2-through-5 to support Walker and earn the squad some wins.

This is a challenge the Hilltoppers seem ready for, and should they accomplish that, a state title could well be the result.

“It’s obviously not going to be handed to us,” Rowberry said. “But we can definitely work for it. It’s definitely within our reach to do really well.”