GLENDALE — Two weeks removed from relinquishing its Southern California Championships title, the Glendale Community College women's cross-country team will step onto Fresno's Woodward Park course looking to retain its much loftier crown.
Having won state titles in two of the last three years, the GCC women are looking to repeat, but defense of their title will come with them taking on the role of underdogs, with Southwestern the favorite when the women's race of the 2010 California Community State Cross-Country Championships begins today at 10 a.m.
"Southwestern is the favorite, but guess what, we're gonna be right there," said Coach Eddie Lopez, whose team won last year's crown on the strength of a dominating 43-point performance, 37 points better than its nearest competition. "We have to take a risk."
This time around, Southwestern emerges as the Southern California champion, having stopped GCC's run of five straight titles in that meet with a blistering 22-point performance on a flat and fast East Mission Bay Park course in San Diego on Nov. 6. Southwestern's scoring five all crossed the finish line before Glendale's Brianna Jauregui, who took 10th place as the Vaqueros' top finisher in the team's second-place, 68-point day.
"It was their home course and they run better there," Lopez said. "We're gonna have to run better."
One thing the Lady Vaqueros believe is in their favor will be the difference in course. The team readily admits it's far more comfortable with the more hilly Woodward course on which Jauregui and Vivian Ochoa were top-five runners on last year's state champion and Jauregui and Keri Molt flourished in high school as a part of the state juggernaut Saugus High squad.
"I know that [the Southwestern] girls knew that course," Molt said. "When we went down there, the [GCC] girls were kind of iffy [about the San Diego course].
"I think it's just gonna be duking it out. … Basically, who wants it more."
Another key to the race is likely the performance of Angie Martinez, the Western State Conference champion who went out fast in San Diego, but fell behind later in the race and was hindered by a calf injury.
There's no getting around the fact that for the women of GCC to repeat as state champs, a dynamic reversal of fortune from the SoCal Championships will have to take place.
Lopez believes it can be done, though, with the biggest components being the change of course and, obviously, a change in performance.
"Basically, it comes down to a difference of 15 seconds a girl, that change is easy," said Lopez, who also received a strong No. 2 showing from Diana Sanchez at SoCal, as she finished 13th overall. "The workouts are indicating that we're still peaking.
"We have a lot of experience. We probably have the most experience on that course in the state."
In addition to the experience of running at Woodward, there's also the experience of running for a state crown.
"I don't need to put any pressure on them," Lopez said, "they know what's at stake."
For the men's team, which will take to the Fresno trail at 11 a.m., the goal is a hopeful third-place finish, with the likes of El Camino, L.A. Trade Tech, American River, Riverside and Orange Coast all there to contend with.
Leading the way will likely be the 1-2 tandem of Ricky Avila and Rico Gutierrez. The two have battled back and forth as the Vaqueros' top runner throughout most of the year with Avila getting the edge, but Gutierrez having turned in a sixth-place finish to Avila's 13th-place run at SoCal. Going forward, the aspiration is for both to grab All-American notice.
"I think we can get some first-team All-Americans," said Lopez of his hopes that Avila and Gutierrez can notch top-seven finishes to garner the honor. "We have our guys up there in the front and, realistically, we can get third [as a team].
"We have the frontrunners. We need our third, fourth and fifth runners [to step up]. It's not that complicated. I told them they have to take risks."
GCC finished sixth at SoCal and will likely need a stronger performance from Michel Norris to sway the outcome, as he was the No. 5 runner at SoCal after tallying a No. 3 finish at the WSC finals. Nicolas Martinez and Neil Jones will also be looked on to make strong scoring contributions.
"We're still peaking," Lopez said. "We have the talent. We just need to compete and do it."
And whether his team is an underdog or not, shooting for a state repeat or third place, Lopez is heading up to Fresno with a smile as this is the time of the year that he looks forward to all season.
"It's exciting, this is the exciting part of the season," Lopez said. "It's exciting if you have a chance at taking home a trophy."