The Arizona high school cross-country season is in full swing. This past weekend was the third weekend of competition, with top meets at the Fountain Hills Invitational and the Battle at the Border in Nogales.
Here’s what to expect in the fall the rest of the way from the state’s best distance runners in Division II.
2022 individual champion: Brandon Martz, senior, Catalina Foothills
2022 team champion: Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge, 48 points
Top returner: Donovan Bitticks, senior, Scottsdale Horizon
What to expect this year: Out of all of the races at the at AIA State Cross Country Championships at Cave Creek Golf Course last November, nobody ran faster than Catalina Foothills’ Brandon Martz at 15:39. Well, Martz is gone now as he gets ready to compete for Rice University, but his teammate, senior Max Irey, is back for his final season in high school. Expect Irey to spearhead a strong Falcons team. They’ll have to battle it out with Gilbert Williams Field, which is led by the tandem of up-and-coming junior Jack Bradley and senior Sheamus Dike. You can never count out a team like Flagstaff, which has a training advantage over most of the state being at 7,000 feet elevation and always seem to perform the best when it matters the most. Oro Valley's Ironwood Ridge is the defending champion, has a proven track record and should be in the mix as well. Sierra Vista Buena has come out of the gates fast early on, with two athletes (seniors Gabriel Cummings and Nick Hiser) both under 16 minutes.
Horizon senior Donovan Bitticks is the leading contender for the state individual title. He led the rest of the division by more than 25 seconds in the 5k heading into the season, with Bradley coming in at second. Bitticks is coming off a track season in which he won the AIA Division II state title in the 1600m (4:16.98), making him the heavy favorite heading into the fall. Canyon Del Oro senior Micah Neese is another top name in the division. But it would be a big surprise if Bitticks didn’t finish first at the end of the year.
2022 individual champion: Mia Hall, senior, Flagstaff
2022 team champion: Flagstaff, 48 points
Top returner: Landen LeBlond, senior, Goodyear Millennium
What to expect this year: The 2022 season was marked by the departure of some all-time greats from the sport and Flagstaff’s Mia Hall was the first one to go. Hall concluded her high school career with her second consecutive state title in cross country last fall, and that was actually her last race ever in a Flagstaff uniform as she did not compete in the track and field season. With Hall gone now competing at North Carolina State, there is a big hole to fill. Luckily for the Eagles, sophomore Taylor Biggambler appears ready to take on the challenge. As a freshman, Biggambler put on arguably the top performance at last year’s state meet as she finished in third place. Biggambler, alongside junior Olivia Baker, will try to lead Flagstaff to a repeat title. But it’ll certainly be a challenge to repeat as Queen Creek Casteel boasts a strong team, led by the sister duo of Olivia and Celedonia Jensen. Olivia, a junior, and Celedonia, a senior, were ranked sixth and seventh in the division heading into the season. Scottsdale Cactus Shadows, Gilbert Campo Verde and Scottsdale Desert Mountain are some of the other top teams early on in the year. Campo Verde, with senior Clara Jones, has the strongest individual out of all three schools.
The top name to watch out for individually is Millennium senior Landen LeBlond, who had a historic season on the track last spring as she became one of the fastest runners in state history for both the 1,600-meters and 3,200-meters. LeBlond did not finish at last year’s state meet for cross-country after an illness forced her to drop out of the race after the two-mile mark. She’s the clear-cut favorite as she looks to avenge her performance from 2022. Tucson Catalina Foothills sophomore Katherine McNulty, the reigning AIA Division II state champion in the 1,600-meters, is another name to keep an eye on. Gilbert Higley has a sophomore, Elise Miner, who is quickly raising the ranks as well.
*All times are sourced from az.milesplit.com
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona high school cross-country season: Division II overview