Onward and Upward: El Paso cross country looks ahead to a brighter 2021

The 2020 cross country season was unprecedented.

It was a year where the season was one COVID-19 spike away from being cancelled. Matter of fact, the district championships were in serious jeopardy due to a surge in cases and hospitalizations.

A year later, with the pandemic still lingering, cross country athletes across the county are preparing for a long, grueling four months with hopes of earning a trip to the state championship on Nov. 6 in Round Rock.

The 2021 season begins Friday night at 11:25 p.m. with Montwood’s Race to Midnight at Socorro’s Student Activities Complex and on Saturday morning at 8 a.m. at the Mountain View High School Cross Country Invitational.

The San Elizario boys are working toward defending its Class 4A state title and the Eastwood boys are hoping to improve on their Class 6A runner-up finish from last year.

The Franklin girls will be seeking its third consecutive trip to state. The Cougars finished fourth behind state champ Lewisville Flower Mound, Southlake Carroll Conroe The Woodlands.

A new season brings new hope for El Paso runners. Key dates to remember are Oct. 16 (districts), Oct. 25 (regional) and Nov. 6 (state championship).

Individually, Eastlake senior Israel David is shooting for another opportunity to return to the state medal stand after finishing with a bronze at last year’s Class 6A race.

Also look for a strong season from Coronado junior Luis Pastor, Americas seniors Jared Laverty and Carmelo Corral, Eastwood seniors Isaac Mendoza and Andres Gurrola, Pebble Hills junior Omer Ibrahim, Hanks junior Alejandro Tarin, San Eliario junior Chris Moreno and Riverside senior Andrew Valdiviezo and Tornillo junior Angel Torres and freshman Daniel Romero.

Eastlake senior Israel David (left) is the top returning runner. David earned a bronze medal at last year’s Class 6A race.

On the girl’s side, Eastwood senior Lauren Walls-Portillo looks to have a breakout season. Walls-Portillo finished 17th at last year’s Class 6A state championship. Also look for Franklin juniors Alyssa Laspada, Jenna Saunders and Michele Paillard to have strong seasons as well as Montwood junior Kassandra Jimenez and Jefferson seniors Monique Correa and Crystal Peterson.

Eastwood senior Lauren Walls-Portillo finished 17th at last year’s Class 6A state championship. Walls-Portillo hopes to lead the Troopers back to regionals.

The season begins Friday night at 11:25 p.m. with Montwood’s Race to Midnight at Socorro’s Student Activities Complex and on Saturday morning at 8 a.m. at the Mountain View High School Cross Country Invitational.

Here is a look at the top 10 teams heading into the 2021 season.

Eastwood Andres Gurrola is one of six seniors for the Troopers. Eastwood finished 2020 with Class 6A state silver medal.

BOYS

  1. Eastwood: The Troopers finished 2020 with Class 6A state silver medal, just six points behind Southlake Carroll. The Troopers are in reload mode after losing four of its top five state finishers. Seniors Isaac Mendoza, Andres Gurrola and Victor Anchondo looked strong at the 5th annual Parra Law Road Race a few weeks ago. The team will look for seniors Nick Parra, Devon Paez and Dylan Sandoval and sophomore Jacob Beckett to pick up some points on the back end. The team is seeking its eighth straight state berth.

2. Americas:  The Trailblazers missed out on its third consecutive Class 6A state trip, finishing fourth place at last year’s regionals. Seniors Jared Laverty, Carmelo Corral and Aaron Saenz will be the front of the pack runners for Americas but will need to find four consistent runners on the back end to compete at the regional level.

3. San Elizario: The Eagles earned it seventh straight trip to state last year where the team won the Class 4A state championship. San Elizario lost its top two runners from last season and will lean on junior Chris Moreno and seniors Irvin Vazquez and Alan Ceballos for a possible return trip to Round Rock.

4. Coronado: The T-Birds will be led by juniors Luis Pastor and Sam Breceda, senior Stephen Pitchkolan with sophomore Carlos Mendez and junior Sam Flores filling out the top five. Look for Coronado to challenge for a spot to the Class 6A regional.

5. Franklin: The Cougars were young last year and it showed at the beginning of the season. Franklin showed great improvement as the season progressed and hope to build on that behind juniors Rai Lopez and Diego Flores and sophomores Matthew Engle and Sebastian Gonzalez, who were competitive at the Parra Law Road Race at Vista Hills Country Club. If healthy, Franklin should be strong enough to contend for a shot at regionals.

6. Hanks: The Knightshave a pair of solid runners – junior Alejandro Tarin and senior Gael Alvarado – who are capable of reaching state. Matter of fact, Tarin was a Class 5A qualifier and finished in the top 50. Hanks could contend for a district title depending on an unexperienced next five of seniors Matthew Abeyta and Daniel George and juniors Andres Garcia, Angel Gomez and Gael Ornales.

7. Cathedral: The Irish return six runners from a team that missed out on a state bronze medal at the Class 6A TAPPS state championship in 2020. A trio of juniors – Bernard Martinez, Elijah Noble and Jacob Noble – will lead the team with seniors Dylan Lorilla and Marcos Garcia, junior Victor Martinez and sophomore Preston Arnett adding additional back-end points.

8. Tornillo: Tornillo has established itself as a Class 3A state power, making 11 state appearances in the past 12 years. Sophomore Daniel Romero and junior Angel Torres will lead the team again this year. Torres was fourth and Romero finished 12 at last year’s state championship. The Coyotes are in desperate need of depth in order for a return to state.

9. Pebble Hills: For the first time in school history, the Spartans make an appearance in the pre-season Top 10. Junior Omer Ibrahim will lead a young promising Pebble Hills team. Junior Noah Castorena and Fernando Morales should help on the front end. The Spartans will definitely be a team to watch in the next few years.

10. Burges: The Mustangs return three seniors – David Herrera, Aaron Gomez and Julian Maldonado – with Region 1-5A meet experience. The defending four-time District 1-5A will be in for another solid season.

Dropped out: None.
On the verge: Bel Air, El Paso High, Riverside.

Junior Alyssa Laspada leads the Cougars this season. Franklin has made the Class 6A state championship the past two years and have won the past three District 1-6A team championships.

Girls

1. Franklin:  The Cougars have made two consecutive trips to the Class 6A state meet and have won three straight District 1-6A team championships. In order to maintain that level of racing, the Cougars will rely on a pair of seniors (Jenna Saunders and Jordan Torres) and four juniors led by Alyssa Laspada, Abigail Barraza, Sofia Camacho and Michelle Paillard. All six have been on varsity since their freshman season so expect similar results in 2021.

2. Montwood:  The Rams finished seventh in Region 1-6A in 2020 with Kassandra Jimenez advancing to state. The junior will lead a talented squad that includes junior Jazmine Miranda and senior Alexa Rangel. This could be another big season for the Rams.

3. Eastwood: Senior Lauren Walls-Portillo, who finished 17th at the Class 6A state championship, is poised to take over the reigns as El Paso top female runner. Eastwood, which missed out on regionals last year, will need big seasons from newcomer Adelynn Rodriguez, seniors Adalia Olmos and Jasmine Martinez and juniors Salma Licon and Sophia Watts. 

4. Jefferson: Seniors Monique Correra and Crystal Peterson are District 1-5A’s top runners. In order for the Foxes to return to Regionals, they will need consistency from seniors Jelia Lugo and Sophia Hernandez. Jefferson typically begins to peak in the second part of the season so don’t expect too much in the first month.

5. Bel Air:  The Highlanders, which won its first district championship since 1982 last fall, will be led by seniors Abigail Murillo and Jaylee Levario. The questions is –  can Bel Air find three runners to fill in for the three quality seniors it lost to graduation?

6. Coronado: The T-Birds have the potential to contend for a regional berth with the return of juniors Kyra Walker and senior Banah Abdeljaber. Junior Sonya Lee and sophomore Alexa Lawrence will provide some back-end support but Coronado must find some depth to complete the 5-7 spots.

7. El Paso High: El Paso High will try to build off its District 1-5A championship trip to the Region 1, Class 5A championship. Juniors Shayla Cohen Jones and Jezarae Valenzuela are the top returnees for the Tigers. El Paso is not a deep team so it might take some time before they reach its full potential.

8. Hanks: Seniors Mia Rivera and Madison Spencer hope to use their leadership to propel the Knights. Junior Ashley White and senior Ashley Ibarra will gobble up some points. Hanks will need some help in in the 5-7 spots to contend for a spot to the Region 1-5A championship.

9. Pebble Hills: For the first time in school history, the Spartans crack the pre-season top 10. The team will be led by newcomer Natalia Martinez who is nursing a minor injury. She will be supported by sophomores Natalie Franco and Carolina Zarrabal, Krystal Talavera and Alexis McBride. In a very competitive District 1-6A, Pebble Hills could be a season away from contending for a spot to regionals.

 10. Del Valle: The Conquistadores return its top three runners from a team that finished fourth in District 2-5A. Senior Disany Sandoval, sophomore Jaslyne Ramirez and junior Valeria Loo-Kung hope to lead Del Valle to a top three district finish and a trip to regionals.

Dropped out: None.

On the brink: Burges, Socorro.

Author: Victor R. Martinez

My love of running began with my son Deric. His passion and talent for distance running opened my eyes to a sport I never imaged I would embrace with such enthusiasm. As a journalist at the El Paso Times, I was the lead writer for cross country and track for several years and I was able to tell the stories of these amazing unsung athletes. Never a runner myself, I decided to change that when I turned 50 in 2016 when I trained for my first 5K. I've been running ever since and I love every minute of it - well - sort of.

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