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Top Empire boys cross country runners to keep an eye on as the season gears up for the NCS race and CIF championship:

Luca Mazzanti: Santa Rosa, junior

Daniel Pride: Santa Rosa, junior

Matt Salazar: Casa Grande, senior

Brian Schulz: El Molino, junior

Jordan Scobey: Maria Carrillo, senior

The scrum for speed supremacy at the top of the boys Empire cross country scene is making for some great racing this season.

Add to the list of ultra-fast guys including El Molino’s Brian Schulz, Casa Grande’s Matt Salazar, Santa Rosa’s Luca Mazzanti and Maria Carrillo’s Jordan Scobey, this name: Daniel Pride.

In fact, you might want to put him atop that list.

Pride, a junior at Santa Rosa, and fellow junior Schulz at El Mo over in the Sonoma County League, have emerged from that group of runners as the guys to beat this season.

But you won’t hear that from Pride.

Dubbed “The Phantom” and “The Silent Assassin” by teammates his freshman year because of his fleet feet coupled with his reticence, Pride has silently climbed to the upper echelons of the area’s cross country and distance running scene.

His coaches say at this stage of the game, he’s one of the best they’ve seen.

Still, Pride’s coaches at Santa Rosa are hopeful that the competition both from his teammate Mazzanti and the other speedsters around the Empire will up everybody’s game as the season wears on.

With a little pressure from each other, all could drop their times as they work toward league finals and eventually the North Coast Section race and then the CIF championship, said Doug Courtemarche, the longtime Santa Rosa High track and cross country coach.

“They have an opportunity to really lower their times,” he said. “If they are all at their best in the same race, it’s going to be a great race.”

There have already been some great races this season.

At the Rancho Cotate Invitational in August, Pride took first, followed by Scobey, Mazzanti and Salazar. At the Super Septo race, Schulz made it two years in a row that he took first over the second-place Pride. At the Viking Opener, it was Pride on top, followed by Schulz, Mazzanti and Salazar. But at that hyper-competitive Stanford Invitational, Schulz edged Pride by four seconds with a finish of 15:26.

“He’s in a really positive groove right now,” Courtemarche said.

Teammate Mazzanti can attest to that.

“He just negative splits everything,” he said with a laugh.

Translation: He gets faster over the course of the race.

“He’s just got incredible stamina,” he said. “After it gets to the point where I’m tired and I want to slow down, he’s just picking it up and going faster.”

But Mazzanti said running with Pride every day makes him better.

“I probably wouldn’t be as fast on another team where there isn’t someone to train with and push me,” he said.

The placid Pride certainly pushes.

“Daniel is the fastest junior we’ve ever had,” said Carrie Joseph, a cross country and long distance track coach for the Panthers.

That’s saying something. Santa Rosa has produced some phenomenal boys long distance runners over the years, including Reesey Byers, Rory McLeod and Zach Barrett. Pride is posting faster times than any of those racers did as juniors.

“His times keep going down every year which is good,” Joseph said.

Pride, who was disappointed in his finish at the state meet in Fresno last year, wants his final race of the season to be significantly different this time around. Last year, he posted a 16:30 and was outside of the top 100. This year, his hopes are to break 15:30.

“I was a little inexperienced,” he said of the course at Woodward Park. “I think I was a little burned out. So this year, hopefully I’ll be stronger postseason.”

Courtemarche and Joseph keep a close eye on how much Pride runs and how much he is asking of his body.

He has been remarkably injury free in his high school career.

Joseph and Courtemarche say Pride will likely be a 5K or 10K specialist in college — a key distance on any squad and one that Pride seems particularly attuned to.

“In high school he’s probably more of a cross country guy only because his best distances are not available on the track,” Courtemarche said. “He is more of a 5K-10K guy. That is where we see him.”

It takes a unique runner to thrive doing 5,000 or 10,000 meters on a track. And Pride has what it takes, Joseph said.

“He likes the long stuff,” she said. “College coaches are always looking for guys who will go 25 laps around the track. It’s hard to convince someone to do that. Daniel is that kind of guy. He’ll do that.”

But there is some business to attend to first.

“He’ll be in the hunt for school records and he’ll be courted by Division I schools,” she said.

Looks like the Silent Assassin won’t be silent for long.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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