Glendale Community College cross-ountry runners Rico Gutierrez, left, and Ricky Avila. (Raul Roa, Glendale News Press / November 19, 2010)

Whether Ricky Avila or Rico Gutierrez is the Glendale Community College men's cross-country team's top finisher at Saturday's California Community College Cross Country Championships at Woodward Park in Fresno is anybody's guess.

It's also not terribly important to either sophomore runner.

What matters is that both have a legitimate shot to finish in the top seven — guaranteeing All-American status — and put the Vaqueros in contention for a second top-three team finish in as many years.

"For the team, I would love to see another third place," says Gutierrez, who was the top freshman on last year's squad and consequently the presumed leader of this year's team coming into the season. "To me, it's been the goal since the beginning. It feels good being in the top three."

Avila, who was more of a support runner on last year's squad, has gone above and beyond expectations for his sophomore year and has given Gutierrez a run for his money as the Vaqueros No. 1.

"Individually, I would like to see Rico and myself be top seven together," Avila says. "It doesn't matter what order or if he comes in front of me, as long as we're both in the top seven."

During the 2010 season, which has already seen the Vaqueros repeat as Western State Conference champions on Oct. 26, the two have practically been an interchangeable 1-2 punch at the front of the pack, with Avila finishing top for the team in six races and Gutierrez coming on to take the team's top spot in the other three.

If it seems like the two are competing with each other, that's true to an extent.

"I think there's like an inside mentality of competition [between us], but overall towards the end, it's like, 'You won, you took it, let's go next race," Avila says.

But when Gutierrez and Avila push each other on the course and in practice, it's the Vaqueros who win.

"Every time I see him pass me, I have to be right next to him, so I go with him," Gutierrez says. "In the end, it's just helping out the team score less points."

The Vaqueros will have their work cut out in getting back into the top three on Saturday, as the competition has stiffened with Riverside, American River and L.A. Trade Tech colleges all gunning for Glendale.

"Actually, the competition this year is stronger than last year," Vaqueros Coach Eddie Lopez says. "But knowing that you have two guys with the potential of being in the top seven, that makes it easier."

Gutierrez finished third on the team in 36th place at state last season, while taking a supporting role behind sophomore standouts Frankie Quijada and Jonathan Alpizar. He wasn't sure how he would handle filling their shoes from a leadership position when it was his turn to take the reins.

"As a freshman, I just came in as a quiet guy and after a few races, Coach gave me a big role," Gutierrez says. "Coming into this year, I was forced to actually talk and tell people what to do. At first I struggled for a bit but then I kind of got used to it."

While Avila seems to have surpassed him to a degree as the team's top-placing runner from week to week, Gutierrez has had some great moments this season, such as his first-place finish at the Western State Conference Preview Meet in Oxnard on Sept. 24, when he clocked a 19-minute-55.65-second mark to help the team win the meet.

His other highlights include a second-place finish at the Santa Barbara Invitational on Oct. 15 in 21:54.28 and most recently, a sixth-place finish in 20:50, both of which led the squad.

Avila enjoyed a strong track season in the spring and carried his hard work through the summer to come back and surprise some people this fall. His top efforts include a second-place finish at the conference championships in 20:22.64 and a win at the Cuesta Invitational on Sept. 18 in 21:21.40.

"As sophomores we kind of knew we had to take the lead, but as far as myself, nobody probably expected me to do as well as I did," Avila says. "Rico was the guy coming in, the top freshman last year, so it was just a step that I had to take up and help Rico out in trying to lead the team.

"I was more toward the middle of our pack [last year] because I was slower. I made the drastic improvement to this year. It's been new to me all season being with the top runners. It's going to be a fun experience [at state]."

While at odds in style and approach, Avila and Gutierrez have managed to form a winning combination.

A track runner at heart, Avila often can't help but fixate on times. Gutierrez has a more prototypical cross-country mentality, focusing on placement.

"They actually have a different philosophy on how to train and race," Lopez says. "Ricky's more of a guy who runs for time. He would rather run 19:30 and take 10th place and Rico is more of a guy who wants to be first-team All-American, it doesn't matter what the time is."

But both runners are committed to working for a common goal and their chemistry has been a big part of the Vaqueros' success.

"They work together well, which is so important because when you have guys that are going for the top, sometimes the chemistry doesn't work," Lopez says. "But these guys, I think they got a long better than the team last year and to me that's the most important thing, because if you get along then you're going to practice together and go that extra mile for your teammates."

The hard work is now essentially done and Gutierrez and Avila can now go out and let it ride at state. A top-seven finish is in reach for both and with the team on their shoulders, who knows, maybe even a step up from last year.

"My biggest concern was to replace Frankie and Jonathan," Lopez says. "In fact, I think these guys have done probably a better job than those guys last year. That punch is pretty good. These guys can be first-team All-American and go in the top seven [at state] and when you have two guys in the top seven it's easier for the third, fourth and fifth guys to do well."