North Medford High wrestling coach Phillip Lopez isn't the type to get carried away.
The odds of North Medford overtaking Portland schools Jesuit and Central Catholic at the boys cross country state championships Saturday in Eugene aren't favorable.
But if the Black Tornado beats everyone else, it will achieve the highest finish in school history.
North Medford is coming off a victory in the toughest district in Class 6A, the Southwest Conference, by a scant two points over defending state champion South Eugene and Sheldon, and it looks to maintain that momentum this weekend.
The state meets for the 6A, 5A, 4A and 3A/2A/1A levels will be at Lane Community College, beginning at 10 a.m.
The North Medford boys in 6A and Cascade Christian boys in 3A are the top area teams, while individuals Stephanie Croy of Cascade Christian and Nevina De Luca of 4A Phoenix are highly ranked.
The Crater boys, who had a run of five straight state titles end last year, and the Comet girls, who were second at state in 2011, will send one individual each but didn't advance as teams.
North Medford didn't make it to state a year ago. It will attempt to improve on the fourth-place finishes of Black Tornado teams in 2009 and '06. The top four teams earn trophies.
The Black Tornado competed against Jesuit in the Northwest Classic and opposite Central Catholic in the Nike Pre-Nationals the last two weeks of September.
Jesuit won the Northwest handily, and North Medford was second among 6A teams. A week later, Central Catholic and the Black Tornado were one-two among Oregon 6A schools in the Nike event dominated by Washington schools.
"They're clearly the favorites," says North Medford coach Piet Voskes. "Hopefully, we're the overlooked team. I do think with the right circumstances and the right conditions, this group can be right there with them. Our objective is a top-three finish."
For things to fall into place, the Black Tornado runners have to run together, he says, with the back three — Caleb Diaz, Devyn Baldovino and Joey Rincon — closing the gap as much as possible with lead runners Blake Spencer and Ray Schireman. Schireman is a junior, and the others are seniors.
North Medford probably needs subpar performances by Jesuit or Central Catholic to move ahead of either, and the most likely element to prompt that would be inclement weather. However, there's only a 20-percent chance of rain, and temperatures are expected to be in the low 60s.
"It's a very tall order," says Voskes. "I don't think we're under any misconception that we're going to beat those teams. We have to run aggressively, and our margin for error is very small."
Schireman and Spencer competed at state last year, finishing 19th and 48th, respectively.
Schireman has the better 5,000-meter time this season of 16 minutes, 15 seconds, about 10 seconds faster than Spencer's best. But Spencer has finished just ahead of his teammate in recent meets. Spencer was seventh and Schireman eighth in the district meet at TouVelle State Park last week.
As the middle runner of the group, Diaz is something of a linchpin. Or, as Voskes calls him, the enforcer. He's responsible for staying as close to the top two as possible and for encouraging Baldovino and Rincon to stay with him.
"What we're looking for is mid-race communication," says Voskes. "We want them thinking collectively rather than independently."
Baldovino, in particular, has improved in recent weeks and "is a different racer than he was a month ago," says the coach. "He'll be a real key for us."
The Black Tornado's top five runners were within 30 seconds of each other at the district meet, and if they can cut that to 20 seconds, it would greatly enhance their state prospects, says Voskes.
Croy, a junior who last year turned her attention full time to cross country — she used to also play soccer — is the top returning local state placer, having finished fourth a year ago.
She has a season-best time of 19:24 and ranks fourth in the state. Six of the top seven runners return from last year's state meet, including defending champion and 2012 state leader Olivia Powell, a sophomore for Creswell.
"She's healthy, she's ready, she's focused," says Challengers coach Steve Williston of Croy. "She could do some good things. She has another year of seasoned racing. She's been in a lot of races and knows how to race."
The Cascade Christian boys are seeded fourth and attempting to win a trophy for only the second time in school history. The 2009 team was also fourth.
The sophomore De Luca placed seventh a year ago in the 4A race and will be in the hunt with much of the same company. Only one of the top 15 placers at state last year was a senior.
Klamath Union's Alisha Luna and Hidden Valley's Sierra Brown, Skyline Conference rivals of De Luca's, were first and second last year. Luna is going for her third straight state crown, but Brown defeated her at district last week.
De Luca, fourth at district for a Pirates team that was runner-up and qualified for state, has a best time this year of 19:08.4.
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