The Redwood Empire has had more than its share of quality cross country runners and teams -- Julia Stamps, Amber Trotter, Sara Bei, Ryan Mack, Celedonia Rodriguez and the 2000 Montgomery girls' state championship team just to name a few -- and this season could rank as one of the best.

Heading into today's North Coast Section cross country championships at Hayward High, Empire fans can root for any of a handful of runners and teams who rank among the favorites and should springboard from the NCS into next Saturday's state meet at Fresno also as favorites.

The list includes:

The Petaluma boys' team, which won NCS last year with a sophomore-dominated team and finished fifth at state, the highest state finish ever by an Empire boys' team.

The Trojans have been ranked as high as third in the state in Division II and are defending NCS Div. II champs.

De La Salle is also in Div. II, but Petaluma has topped the Concord school twice in meets this season.

Sterling Lockert and twin brother Devin lead a Petaluma team that this year had the first seven finishers in the Sonoma County League championships and set a Spring Lake course team record.

Healdsburg senior Sarah Sumpter has been running fast times all season, winning a Div. IV race at Mount SAC and earning a top ranking at the state level in Div. IV.

Sumpter, who logged 100 miles a week during the summer, has shown no signs of wear and was only the fourth girl in the Empire to run a race under 17 minutes at Spring Lake.

Sumpter is the favorite in today's Div. IV race.

Casa Grande sophomore Jacque Taylor is one of the favorites in the girls' Div. II race.

It's a tough field in Div. II, but Taylor set a Hayward course record last year as a freshman and went on to finish fifth at state.

Willits' Kenny Smith ranks among the favorites in Div. IV boys. Smith, the Coastal Mountain Conference champ, and whose times compare favorably to recent CMC standouts Mike Perez and Brian Cole, has a third place at Stanford as his worst finish this season.

Santa Rosa Christian's Zach Nave was 15 seconds behind Smith in the CMC and ranks as a favorite in the Div. V race.

Other boys with good times include Nathan Huckeba of Maria Carrillo (Div. III), Joe Withers of Cardinal Newman (Div. IV) and Andrew Zellman of Ukiah (Div. II).

The Maria Carrillo boys' and girls' team should be in the running for places at state.

Huckeba leads the Puma boys, and the Curtin twins, Lauren and Cara, lead the Puma girls.