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The North Bay League may be rejiggered and reconfigured, but Maria Carrillo’s place in the cross country standings this fall is likely to remain unchanged from last year — the Pumas are at the top.

“In the boys, no one is going to be close” to Carrillo, according to Piner coach Luis Rosales. And that comes from a guy whose roster includes a kid with the fastest North Coast Section meet time among runners lining up in the new NBL-Oak Division.

Piner, along with Healdsburg, moves over from the former Sonoma County League to the reconfigured NBL and will race along with Carrillo, Santa Rosa, Montgomery and Ukiah in the Oak division.

Leading the charge against the mighty Pumas boys’ team are likely the Prospectors, who have senior Nathan Hayes, who ran a 15-minute, 53-second time in the Division 4 race in Hayward last year, tops among all NBL Oak boys returning this season. But after that, there are a lot of Carrillo names: juniors Colton Swinth (16:05) and Rory Smail (16:06) along with senior Harry Frankl (16:12). Hayes has speed in teammate Manny Delgado, a senior who ran a 16:21 at NCS.

But Carrillo has speed and depth that is unmatched. Goals for the Pumas include not just repeating as league and NCS champions but finding a place on the podium at the state meet, something that eluded the team during last year’s chaotic season that saw wildfires upend schedules and training, as well as leaving athletes and coaches alike burned out of their homes.

“That’s fodder for this year,” Pumas coach Greg Fogg said. “Let’s go get what eluded us.”

“As deep as our team is and has been over recent years, it will be hard to compete against us,” he said. “On the boys’ side, my No. 1 and my No. 8 guy, there are only 30 seconds between them.”

But there are teams trying to break the stranglehold at the top.

At Santa Rosa, coach Carrie Joseph likes how junior Andrew Engle and Andrew McKamey, just a sophomore, are running. Engle finished the NCS course in 17:12, just a half-second ahead of McKamey last fall.

“Carrillo is really deep,” Joseph said. “We will absolutely give them our very best.”

So too, do Piner’s duo of Hayes and Delgado hope to make a mark in league meets.

“Nathan will battle, but we’ll be lucky to get many to break up the top seven,” Rosales said.

Watching the Pumas at the NBL finals last fall was like watching a rolling wave of green and gold jerseys. Not only did both the boys and girls win the league pennant, both junior varsity teams won with perfect records.

As strong as the boys’ team looks to be, there are not a lot of soft spots on the Pumas’ girls side, either. They lost NBL champ Sydnie Rivas to graduation but return senior Aimee Armstrong, who finished eighth at NCS in 18:31, as well as sophomore Nicole Morris and senior Talia Leano. Morris ran an 18:50 at NCS as a freshman and Leano ran a 19:35 in her junior campaign.

Montgomery’s Leah Haley should be in the mix all season after she ran a 19:01 at NCS last year, just ahead of teammate, junior Mariah Briceno, who finished in 19:44 as a sophomore.

Santa Rosa has a trio of seniors who could have strong seasons. Caroline Duffy ran a 20:29 at NCS, just ahead of Jaqueline Hale’s 20:40 and Anika Williams’ 20:43.

But the undisputed star on the girls’ side of the NBL is Healdsburg senior Gabby Peterson, who is making her NBL debut this season in the reconfigured format. Peterson won the Division 4 section title by 16 seconds with a 17:51 last fall and had a phenomenal run through the track season in the spring.

“Anybody that is fortunate enough to be racing in the same league as her, it’s great exposure for the kids,” Fogg said.

Joseph agreed.

“Hopefully kids will be inspired by that level of talent,” she said.

Windsor senior Lucas Chung, who posted the fastest NCS time for any returning runner in the area with a 15:45, went from racing against the likes of Maria Carrillo, Montgomery and Santa Rosa in league meets to having the Jaguars placed in the NBL-Redwood league, where he will go up against less stout competition. But Chung should expect to see familiar foes such as Carrillo’s Swinth, Smail and Frankl in the postseason.

And those in the know say despite a less competitive league lineup, he’ll be very much one to watch in the postseason.

“He is definitely someone who rises to the occasion against great competition,” Joseph said. “He doesn’t back down from anybody.”

On the girls’ side of the NBL-Redwood, Analy senior Sierra Atkins could parlay a great spring on the track into a standout cross country season.

“I can’t wait to see what she does this year,” Joseph said. “She should have a great season.”

In the North Central League II and Coastal Mountain Conference competitions, Sonoma Academy senior Andre Williams should dominate. Williams posted the second-fastest time of any area runner at NCS with a 15:51 before running to a fourth-place finish at the Division 5 race at the state meet.

Other top finishers from last fall who return this season racing in various leagues are Cloverdale junior Paden Collard, Sonoma Valley’s Justin Cox, who along with his Dragons teammates will now be competing in the Vine Valley Athletic League.

“I’m going to miss the SCL,” Sonoma Valley coach John Litzenberg said.

Unlike the NBL, the way the Vine Valley League is configured, the teams will face off against all schools at every meet. That could prove tough on some of the smaller programs, Litzenberg said.

“Some of those meets can be confidence boosters,” he said.

But a new set of competitors and even new courses can be fun for athletes, he said.

“I’m going into it with an open mind and trying to be positive,” he said.

But in the North Bay League-Oak division, it’s all about untangling the knot of Pumas at the front of the pack.

“We are going to give it our best shot,” Rosales said. “We’ll see.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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