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Los Lunas runner Bruce Bottini runs during the Tigers hill practice during offseason workouts ahead of the season begining Oct. 5. 

(This is the first in a series of previews looking at the fall sports calendar. Next week, volleyball.)

Seven months after the final game of the 2019-20 school year was played, high school sports return on Monday, Oct. 5. as the fall season finally gets underway with cross country. The first meet of the season for all three schools will take place on Saturday, Oct. 10, at 9 a.m. at Los Lunas.

With shortened schedules, and sports moved to the spring, things will look a little different this fall, but cross country will still be run.

Here is a look at the three Valencia County cross country squads as they head into their seasons.

Belen

Head coach: Fernando Sisneros

Runners to watch: Sophia Castillo, Natalie Martinez, Blaze Sheets, Santos Sisneros

Last season: two state qualifiers

Belen has an expanded squad this year, as the sport picked up athletes from other sports such as soccer as they had to halt practices and had their seasons pushed into the spring.

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Fall sports competitions are on hold but practices can continue with appropriate COVID-19 screening.

“It’s been a challenging year, we’ve got a lot of newcomers to cross country,” Sisneros said. “It’s a large team. I think we have about 25 kids coming out so the biggest challenges have been adapting to some of the COVID stuff, the masks, the social distancing, checking the temperature before practice.”

The squad for the Eagles is young, on both the boys and the girls’ side and Sisneros said a lot of the summer has been spent teaching them the ropes of the sport.

“We’re not pushing it real heavy, not doing hill work, not doing anything like that,” he said. “We’re just doing three and four-mile runs right now, working up to four and five miles by the end of the preseason and getting more consistent with it.”

Because of the changes to the schedule due to COVID, the preseason has stretched for nearly five months, with a two-week dead period around the start of the school year interrupting it. As a result, the coaches at BHS spent a lot of their time building the conditioning up and then working to get back to where the team was prior to the dead period.

After the dead period, the team picked up even more runners as the eighth graders were allowed to come out to practices.

Sisneros believes the Eagles will be contenders in the district.

“I think we could run with the best of them right now, especially if these guys and gals put their heads to it they can compete with the best of them,” Sisneros said.

Los Lunas

Head coach: Larry Padilla

Runners to watch: Amanda and Rebekah Sparks, Butch Bottini

Last season: Girls: 10th place at state; Boys: 20th place at state

The Los Lunas Tigers were the only team from the county to qualify their teams on the boys and the girls side for state last season, but they face a new challenge in moving to Class 5A and a new district this year.

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Los Lunas runner Amanda Sparks, one of the top returners for the Tigers, runs during offseason workouts. Sparks has a medical exemption from wearing a mask. 

Under the guidance of Larry Padilla, who helped not only his squad, but the teams at Belen and Valencia, and a number of others through the challenging scheduling dynamic that came with the delayed start and shortened season, the Tigers have a very experienced team of returners.

Amanda and Rebekah Sparks, two of the team’s top runners on the girls’ side from last season, both return looking to lead the team again and will be joined by athletes such as Amalia Cruz and Kaya Padilla.

On the boys side, Bruce Bottini and Eneas Armijo headline the returners, having finished third and fourth on the team at the state meet last November.

With teams only able to run five at districts and state, as opposed to the traditional seven, Padilla feels this will help his squad as they don’t necessarily have the depth that some of their district opponents, who in some cases have nearly a thousand more students than Los Lunas, do.

An additional challenge because of the restricted travel and highly localized schedule teams are running this fall is the Tigers will likely not see any of their district opponents until they toe the line at the district meet at Santa Fe on Friday, Nov. 27, and Saturday, Nov. 28.

It’s been a difficult offseason for the Tigers as well, as the first sport to return to action was initially scheduled to begin in September, but despite the very different look of the year, the Tigers should benefit from their experience when it comes time to step on to the course.

Valencia

Head coach: James Perez

Last season: four state qualifiers, led by Raquel Chavez who finished 10th overall.

Entering his second season in charge of the program, James Perez will have big shoes to fill on the girls side following the graduation of the top runner in the county from last fall, Raquel Chavez.

The Jaguars have a small team again this year, with nine runners coming out for the team.

Perez said he hasn’t seen the bump in numbers because of other sports being pushed to the spring that Belen has, but has had some new faces out who decided to start running in part because of the differences with this year.

Perez also has an incredibly young team this year, with not one runner on the team older than a sophomore. He also only has one returner, with some of his other athletes who would have been returners deciding to focus on different things this year.

As a result, Perez is taking this year as a learning experience for his athletes.

“What I’m trying to inspire the kids to understand is that this is a weird year, we’re just going to go out there and run, we’re going to do our thing and we’re going to focus on ourselves and building ourselves and not really on competition,” Perez said.

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Valencia coach James Perez is entering his second season with a team of only nine runners, all underclassmen. Perez is hoping the team will learn a lot this season. 

“Competition is good and all, but the life lessons about trying to set a mark for us, set a goal and overcome any adversity, that’s what I’m trying to do this year with the kids.

“Regardless of if they run junior varsity or they run varsity, they’re still running the same distance.”

With only four runners on the girls side, the Jaguars benefit from the change to only four runners scoring at state and district meets, meaning the team will be able to field scoring teams on both the boys and the girls side at district.

In a typical year, that wouldn’t have been possible.

All of Perez’ runners will be run in varsity meets throughout the year, and will have opportunities to run in junior varsity meets as well.

With a fresh group of faces, Perez said it will be something of a baptism by fire for his runners.

Sports writer

Cameron Goeldner grew up in Boulder, Colo., and attended the University of New Mexico. He covers everything sports for all Valencia County schools.

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