A glance at some of the top cross country times in the state reveals one thing: much of the top talent resides right here in southern Oregon.

A glance at some of the top cross country times in the state reveals one thing: much of the top talent resides right here in southern Oregon.

Individuals and teams will be out to prove just that with district meets this week, starting with the Southwest Conference meet today at Alton Baker Park in Eugene.

The Southern Sky Conference meet will be held Saturday at the Expo Fairgrounds beginning at noon while the Skyline Conference meet will also be Saturday at Henley High School starting at 2:20 p.m.

"It's pretty amazing how many runners are making noise down here in Southern Oregon," Crater coach Justin Loftus said.

Though South Eugene figures to be in the SWC mix in both the boys and girls races, the North Medford boys and South Medford girls could also earn one of the top two spots and an automatic bid to the Nov. 3 state meet at Lane Community College in Eugene.

The Black Tornado boys are led by senior Josh Paul, who holds the top SWC 5,000-meter time and sixth best time in the state at 15 minutes, 49 seconds.

"Josh Paul is a (NCAA) division-one runner," North co-coach Hans Voskes said. "He's very, very talented and only going to get better. He's confident right now."

Not far behind Paul is teammate Drew Jordan. The sophomore holds the second best mark in the conference at 16:02.

"They (Josh and Drew) are going to run well and I can guarantee that," Voskes said. "The question is, will they have the team support behind them?"

To have that support, the Black Tornado will need solid efforts from seniors Richard Zhu and Travis Linville. North will also have to overcome a potent South Eugene team boasting seven runners with times that rank in the top 15 in the conference, including junior leader Sammy Kirtner.

"Both are going to run with a lot of focus and effort," Voskes said of Zhu and Linville. "This is their culminating run. Hopefully they want to go to state and represent our school well."

After bouncing back and forth, freshman Jennifer Zhu has emerged as North's top girl. Senior Davina Leyva has also progressed, as has sophomore sprinter Baylee Hearns.

But it'll take a great effort from the North girls to upstage strong South Eugene and South Medford teams.

"The girls are a bit of an underdog, but they are becoming stronger," Voskes said. "They are going to have some impact on the meet."

Junior Piper Delaney figures to lead the South Medford girls. Kelsey Bradshaw and Tayler Harrington must also help the Panthers fend off North Medford for the second spot and perhaps upset favorite South Eugene, led by top runners Lauren Graebner and Sasha Teninty.

"It's going to be an exciting race for that second spot," South Medford coach Josh Wallace said. "It'll be a close race between our girls and the North Medford girls. It'll be fun to watch, and it's an interesting matchup."

Wallace said his youthful boys team is improved but, "we're not there yet." Wallace is hopeful to send senior Joey Nelson back to state. Nelson holds the conferences seventh best time at 16:35.

"He'll be in the top 5 if he continues to run like he did in the last two races," Wallace said.

SOUTHERN SKY CONFERENCE — Crater is the projected favorite in both races. The Comets have runners with the top two 5,000-meter times in the conference in the girls and boys divisions. The Crater boys are ranked fifth in the country and both the girls and boys are ranked No. 1 in the state.

"You don't want to overlook the conference, but we're pretty strong on both sides," Crater's Loftus said. "I've never had two teams this strong going into a conference meet."

The Comets certainly have the runners to earn another state title but first must get through one of the more competitive conferences.

There are eight runners, six on Crater, who sport personal best times that rank in the top 10 in the state.

The Crater boys are led by Zach Elliott, Ryan Santana and Josh Elliott. The three hold the Nos. 3, 5 and 7 best times in the state, respectively. Zach Elliott owns the conference's top 5,000-meter time at 15:51.

The Crater boys could receive competition from Klamath Union, the No. 3 team in the state, and Ashland, ranked fourth. Matt Miner, who has the sixth best time in the state, and Wilder Schaaf, who defeated Crater's Zach Elliott at the State of Jefferson in Ashland on Oct. 13, lead the Grizzlies. Loftus said Miner and Schaaf can contend for a district title as can KU's Alex Peterson. But Crater's depth will be difficult for Ashland or KU to offset.

"Ashland and Klamath are within a point or two if they run how they've been running," Loftus said. "It just depends on how well their front guys do. We have to show up, too."

The girls race figures to unfold similarly to the boys. Crater is the favorite, with Ashland, ranked No. 6 in the state, and KU likely battling for the second spot. Crater junior Kayleigh Tyerman and senior Riley Swanson are within one second for the conference's top time and own the second and third best times in the state, respectively.

Ashland's top runner is senior Aria Hemphill, who owns the sixth best time in the state. KU junior Chelsea McDonnell recorded the conference's fifth-best 5,000-meter time this season.

SKYLINE CONFERENCE — Hidden Valley is the favored team in the boys and girls races. The boys are led by Connor Kasler but the Mustangs' sixth fastest runner still has a time that ranks in the conference's top 12.

"They could be a trophy team at state," Phoenix coach Bruce Timmerman said of Hidden Valley's boys.

Timmerman considers his Phoenix boys squad a close second and Henley likely third. Phoenix junior Elliott Jantzer is the class of the conference. He ran 15:41 at the Nike Pre-Nationals, more than a half of a minute faster than the second best 5,000-meter time in the conference and second best in the state. Daniel Engle, Zach Hibbs, Conrad Hulen and Graham Thirkill round out the Pirates squad.

Sophomore Cole Watson is the top individual for Rogue River. He boasts the third-best time in the conference at 16:16 and could earn a bid to state should he be one of the top four finishers among runners whose teams did not finish among the top two and earn automatic berths.

Things are slightly less clear in the girls race.

Hidden Valley is the slight favorite based on times but will likely be challenged from Illinois Valley, Henley and Phoenix.

Henley's Taylor Wallace is the favorite to win. Wallace owns the top mark in the conference at 18:19. Phoenix senior Jordi Hurd is second with a time of 19:39.

Reach reporter Luke Andrews at 776-4469, or e-mail landrews@mailtribune.com

"If we can do well in our conference, I think we can do well at the state level. I would say (southern Oregon) is comparable to any other area in the state."