There’s never been a dynasty in California girls cross country like the one Saugus has built the past five years.

Until now, there’s never been a year with so many questions surrounding the Saugus girls.

There’s still plenty of state-level talent on the five-time defending state champions. But any team figures take a step back when it graduates five of its top seven runners, especially when two of those runners - Kaylin Mahoney and Stephanie Bulder - are among the top four runners in program history, according to head coach Rene Paragas.

This season, Paragas and the Centurions will go to battle with a mixture of varsity veterans and newcomers. They’ll do so in Division II, which is arguably the toughest division in the country.

According to the latest ESPNRise national rankings, six of the top 40 girls teams in the country are California Division II teams. The likes of La Costa Canyon, Redondo Union, Simi Valley, Woodbridge and Foothill are all ranked.

Of course, so is Saugus, which is No. 7 nationally and remains the clear favorite to capture its sixth straight Foothill League championship.

There are hurdles, however. Valencia has quietly put together a solid team, while Golden Valley and West Ranch return a good amount of runners.

Canyon and Hart have their share of young talent as well, which means whoever reaches the postseason out of the Foothill League will have certainly earned it.

And if the Centurions are able to win their sixth straight state title, they’ll have more than earned it.

The quest for state begins at Thursday’s first league meet at Central Park.
   
Saugus Centurions

In the past, Paragas and Saugus have reloaded with dynamic young runners who were good enough to make varsity as freshmen.

This year, circumstances dictate a different approach.

“We’re reloading with older kids that have built themselves into varsity runners with two or three years of training,” Paragas said. “We didn’t get some super-talented kid who trained for three months and is now varsity. We got some kids who took a long time to get ready.”

That includes junior Katie Huntington, who won the frosh/soph league title last season, senior Jordan McCall and sophomore Abigail Frankian, the younger sister of No. 1 runner Karis who could find herself consistently in Saugus’ No. 4 or 5 spot.

It also includes senior Jenna Vincej, who’s developed into a star on the track and took last cross country season off. Paragas and assistant coach Kathryn Nelson had lunch with Vincej the last week of school and convinced her to come back out.

“We sold her on the program,” Paragas said. “The best preparation for track and field is cross country.”

The Centurions know what they have at the top with the elder Frankian, Jenay Jauregui and Emily McCarty, all key figures in their state-title run a year ago.

Paragas said the newcomers have collectively taken a big step forward. When they ran at the Seaside Invitational on Sept. 9, everyone’s time improved by more than a minute from last year’s event.

“The question is, can they take another step to go from JV runners to varsity to elite, state-level varsity runners?” Paragas said.

Valencia Vikings

Valencia head coach Jeff Gilkey had hoped that junior Maddie Dignadice would fly under the radar for most of the season.

Instead, she flew under the radar for barely any of it.

Dignadice won the girls 11th-grade race at the Seaside Invitational, outpacing the runner-up finisher by almost 25 seconds. Gilkey said it’s a continuation of the improvements she’s made over the past year.

“We were happily surprised with how fast she dropped times in track, especially in the 3,200,” Gilkey said. “(Winning Seaside) is not a huge surprise, because she’s on that same trajectory that she finished track on. We hope she can keep doing that for three more months.”

That said, this team is more than just Dignadice. Last year, the Vikings missed out on the CIF-Southern Section Division I finals by a single point.

This season, they have the depth to get there.

The team received a boost when senior Arianna Michaels, who is a talented track athlete that had never run cross country, decided to run this season.

Junior Olivia Pear, her freshman sister Amelia and seniors Lindsey Garcia and Brooklyn Beeler round out a potent lineup – a lineup that benefitted from the postseason berth last November.

“They saw what was out there,” Gilkey said. “They really can compete with these other teams. I think they believe in themselves, and that’s going to be the difference between last year and this year.”

Golden Valley Grizzlies

While their male counterparts have gotten most of the headlines over the past three years, the Golden Valley girls grabbed headlines of their own last fall.

The Grizzlies finished second in the Foothill League and earned a berth in the CIF-Southern Section Division III finals, where they finished eighth and missed the state meet by a single spot.

The program expects to build off those results. But it doesn’t expect to do it overnight.

“For us, it’s going to be about being patient,” said co-head coach Rob Evans. “We know our team at the end of the year is going to have to be a lot stronger than at the beginning of the year.”

That’s because the Grizzlies lost two of their regular scorers. They’re still strong at the top with junior Chelsey Totten, who won the first Foothill League race last season and finished 36th individually at the loaded Woodbridge XC Classic over the weekend.

Chelsey’s twin sister Weslie is also back, as are senior Abby Buckhoff and junior Jilliane De Leon. The biggest question is whether the Grizzlies’ back end, a pair of newcomers in junior Angelica Torres and sophomore Jasmine Gill, will consistently score points this season.

If they do, Golden Valley’s growth will continue.

“We have to prove we can continue going in that direction,” Evans said. “It’s going to be a lot of work to get there. (The 2010) team really set the bar high.”

West Ranch Wildcats

Sometimes, runners fall at the starting line and have to work to get back in the race.

That scenario could describe West Ranch’s 2010 season.

Without No. 1 runner Jennifer Owen, who is now at UCLA, the Wildcats stumbled out of the gate and finished fifth at the first Foothill League meet. They never recovered and missed the CIF-Southern Section Division I postseason a year after reaching the Division II state meet.

They haven’t forgotten.

“Right after track season, we did a lot of core work,” said head coach Rick Larimore. “We upped our mileage over the summer about 25 percent. They were all on board early on.”

The top returner is senior Ashley Welker, a veteran of the state team who finished 10th in the league individually last season. Her younger sister, sophomore Taylor Welker, will also be a key contributor, but she’s still battling injuries.

So is junior Maggie Phillips, who broke her foot over the summer. One of her sisters, senior Samantha Phillips, could be the team’s No. 1 runner at meets, and younger sister Abbie has made marked strides, according to Larimore.

Abbie is part of a talented sophomore class that also includes Amanda Nesheim and Megan Leonhardt.

“The girls are right where we want them to be,” Larimore said.

For now, at least. Later this season, Woodward Park in Fresno is where the Wildcats want to be.
   
Canyon Cowboys

Canyon High School’s cross country program has churned out a lot of great runners.

None of them put in more mileage over a 12-week period than junior Madison Hills.

A former soccer player who’s out for her first cross country season, Hills ran 717 miles over the summer.

“Those were some intense miles,” said co-head coach Paul Broneer. “We’re debating having her keep working with the girls team or going with the boys team. She loves her teammates, but we don’t want the rest of her teammates to slow her down.”

Broneer said that Hills has a lot of intangibles to be a great runner, from intelligence to body type, work ethic to coachability.

Hills’ work has already yielded one impressive result. She finished ninth in the girls 11th-grade race at the Seaside Invitational, and she’ll lead the Cowboys as they look to return to the CIF-Southern Section Division II postseason after missing it last fall.

Another newcomer, junior Lupe Ruiz, is the team’s No. 2 runner, and junior Lindsey Jakeman and senior Caitlyn Selve will also be regular scorers. Canyon will count on a pool of runners pulled up from the frosh/soph ranks, including junior Valeria Soto and sophomores Shalyn Mabritto, Natalie Rodriguez, Rachel Rush and Shelby Dunn.

According to Broneer, Canyon improved its team time at Seaside by seven minutes from last season.

“That doesn’t just happen,” he said. “Obviously, last year’s team wasn’t very good, but this team, the kids have bought into working hard.”

Hart Indians

With 250 yards or so left, Hart freshman Augustina Hansen was well on her way to winning the girls’ 9th-grade race at the Seaside Invitational.

She took a wrong turn, and her hopes for a victory ended.

That’s OK. There appear to be plenty of victories in Hansen’s future.

“She’s got the work ethic and talent, no question about it,” said head coach Larry David. “She’s going to be on the elite level.”