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For Redwood Empire track and field fans, Christmas comes the first Saturday in March.

On that date for the past 23 years, the Big Cat Invitational has signaled the start of the local season. As per custom, the event is held at Santa Rosa High and begins at 9 a.m.

Last year, more than 1,000 athletes participated, and that many are expected this Saturday.

Competing will be members of boys and girls varsity teams as well as those on junior varsity squads.

“We get excited every year as we get close to the first Saturday in March, and this season is no different,” meet director and Santa Rosa coach Doug Courtemarche said.

Most of the schools in the Empire will be represented, as will Lowell and Sacred Heart from San Francisco.

Athletes sign up for individual events the morning of the Invitational, but Courtemarche has already determined where his top performers will compete.

Delaney White, the North Bay League’s top cross country runner four years in a row, will be in the 1,600 field. That will be one of the first races of the day and is scheduled for 9:45 a.m.

Daniel Pride, a teammate of White’s and also a winner of last fall’s league cross country meet, is set for the 3,200 meters.

Luca Mazzanti, another of Santa Rosa’s top runners, will contest the 1,600.

Kirsten Carter is yet another Panthers’ runner who always makes an impact. As a freshman last season, she was one of the fastest females in the Empire. On Saturday, Carter is going to compete in the 300 hurdles and also will be part of the 4x400 relay team.

While Santa Rosa is in the upper echelon of the NBL, Maria Carrillo coach Greg Fogg isn’t ready to concede the title before the season starts.

“I expect it will come down to us and Santa Rosa,” he said. “We’re especially strong in the boys division.”

Leading the way is sprinter Ian Herculson. He put up fast times in the 100 and 200 last year.

Other top Carrillo athletes include Isaiah Smith (400), Carson Kimball (800) and distance runner Jordan Scobey.

As for the Pumas girls, expect a top performance from Rebecca Plattus in the high jump and Assata Polk in the 200 and 400. In the longer races, Maria Carrillo will send out Allie Ahern, Cecilia Avelar, Sydnie Reavis and Aime Armstrong.

“We’re also strong in the relays,” Fogg advised.

Piner, which is favored to take the Sonoma County League title, will have most of its best athletes competing in the Big Cat.

That includes Itzel Gonzalez in the 100, 200, long jump and triple jump. Also, Cynthia Rosales in the distance races and Daisjah Sheperd in the 400 and high jump.

The Prospectors will be in the hunt for the blue ribbon in the 4x400 relay, where school record holders Kassia Changon, Daisy Garnica, Gonzalez and Sheperd are set to compete.

Other top Empire athletes who will lace up on Saturday include Windsor’s Maddie Call (hurdles and long jump) and Alyssa Stewart (100, long and triple jump); St. Helena’s Julia DeVincenzi (hurdles); Sonoma Valley’s Isabel Garon (pole vault) and Edwin Reyes (200 and 400); Casa Grande’s Adria Barich (distance), and Willits’ Will Smith (discus).