Special to the Review
Chino Valley High's boys' cross country team lost four seniors to graduation in the off-season, although that hasn't deterred the 2013 Cougars and their leading runner.
Coach Marc Metz said junior No. 1 McKenzie Nez returns to the Division 3, Section 1 team after overcoming struggles with his health by recuperating during track and field season.
"Last year in cross country, he started out strong and then faded as the season went on," the coach said. "He battled some injuries and didn't end the way he wanted to."
In 2012, the Cougars boys didn't qualify for state. Metz had a heart-to-heart conversation with Nez in the spring, challenging him to regain his strength in the off-season.
Metz said that in middle school Nez ran nearly neck-and-neck with Simon Paige, Prescott's current No. 1. But within the past year, the excelling Paige put some distance between himself and Nez.
"So he said, 'OK.' It was almost like, 'challenge accepted,' " Metz said of Nez's response. "He had a really good summer and he's starting the season off well. Simon was just a little bit in front of him in middle school, so he'd like to try to get up to where Simon is. That's his goal."
Running alongside Nez is the Cougars' No. 2, Andy Freitag, a well-conditioned senior transfer from Missouri who will push Nez.
"He brings a lot of experience," Metz said of Freitag. "He's only been here a week, and he's already been helpful with just building team chemistry and challenging (his teammates) to do different things and offering ideas."
No. 3 Tim Rudiger, a senior, has stayed consistent, too. Senior Stanley Swiacki is in line for the No. 4 spot, while sophomore Uriel Saldana earned the No. 5 position. Juniors Travis Rowitsch, Scott Blakley and Daniel Shepherd are contending for the remaining slots.
"All of them have been getting their long runs in, and just pushing themselves in workouts," Metz said. "I'm just encouraged."
As for the Cougars' girls, junior Cheyanne Penton moves into the No. 1 spot with one of the squad's former top runners, Kelsey Randal, having graduated.
In 2012, Penton was Chino's leading runner for half the season. Last year at sectionals in Holbrook, she finished 15th overall and advanced to state with her team.
"She's ready to take charge," Metz said of Penton. "She's looking to get top 10 at sectionals this year."
Sophomore No. 2 runner McKeisha Nez, a 24th-place finisher at sectionals last year; upstart returning sophomore No. 3 Natalie Malloy; freshman No. 4 Rosio Aguiar; senior No. 5 Micaela Chavez; and junior No. 6 Christina Ballard round out the unit.
Similar to Prescott and Bradshaw Mountain, the Cougars are in another one of the state's toughest sections. Tuba City, Cottonwood Mingus Union, Page and Chinle are all consistently high state finishers.
Chino Valley opens the season at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Payson Multiple.
"I want to say like five or six teams in the top eight of Division 3 come from our section," Metz said. "We have our work cut out for us if we want to try to make state, but that's what the girls want to do. It's a realistic possibility."
Follow Doug Cook on Twitter: @dougout_dc