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Defending champs have leg up in district meets

Don't be surprised to see four local cross country teams get a little defensive on Saturday.

No, they won't be of ill will; rather fleet of foot.

Saturday marks the district cross country meets for the Southern Oregon and Skyline conferences, and in each case the defending champions still have a leg up on their respective fields.

In the SOC, Klamath Union's boys and Ashland's girls have done nothing to lose the luster of their status as favorites.

The same goes in the Skyline Conference, where the Phoenix boys and Rogue River girls stand just as formidable as last season.

At stake Saturday are bids to state for the top two teams and seven fastest individuals in each gender and classification. The state meet for Class 4A and 3A is next Saturday at Lane Community College in Eugene.

Maybe the most heavily-favored team Saturday afternoon, Klamath Union's boys squad has dealt with all the pressure before. The Pelicans have been the team to beat in recent years - winning the past four SOC titles - and rarely have they buckled under those weighty expectations.

"KU's liable to put four guys in the top 7," says South Medford coach Bill Rowan. "They have to be the favorite, but there's probably four teams fighting for that second spot."

KU's Lauren Jespersen and Jacob Gomez finished 1-2 in the predistrict meet last month and neither has shown a weakness heading into Saturday's competition. Two other Pelicans, Kevin Pellegrino and Alex Jayne, helped KU post four of the top-6 marks at the predistrict meet as all finished inside 17 minutes.

The Achilles heel for KU has been with its No. 5 runner, where a sizable dropoff exists and could be the major obstacle between a potential state championship for the Pels. Patrick Rose, Markus Schaaf and Tyler Hale have been the ones charged with closing the gap, with both hovering around the 18-minute mark.

Lead challengers to the Pelicans earning their fifth straight boys crown stand to be Ashland, South Medford, Grants Pass and Roseburg.

"Obviously it's going to be who runs well and how all the pieces fit in at the finish," says Rowan.

Ashland is paced by Chris Faudree, Asha Wolf, David Richardson, Jeff Olsen and Andy Wright.

Roseburg, which finished sixth at the predistrict meet, has since pulled things together behind the talents of Adam Wadsworth, David Powell and Gavin Weaver.

In the individual race, South Medford's Shaun Olson joins Wadsworth and Faudree as the main threats to KU's dominance in the top spots.

Helping level the playing field will be a predominantly flat Eagle Point course.

Roseburg's Melis Garner is the favorite for the SOC girls title, which has belonged to an Ashland runner since 1991. Garner won the predistrict with a time of 19:45 but trimmed that number to 18:56 in winning the Chieftain Invitational.

"She's hands-down the favorite," Rowan says of Garner. "Nobody will touch her."

Ashland's best chances at winning an 11th straight individual title rests with Kendall Clark, Mariah Mayfield and Gretchen Buettner. Each hovers in the 20- to 21-minute range.

Clark finished fourth at last year's district meet - one spot behind Garner.

Other top threats to breaking Ashland's run are Katie Leary of KU, Sarah Dalton and Jenny Brown of North Medford and Crater's Sam Kezer and Kendel Nelson.

The Grizz have also won the past two girls team titles and were the runaway winners last month at the predistrict meet. Crater, Grants Pass and KU expect to contend for the second state playoff spot.

In Class 3A, Rogue River's grasp on the girls team title doesn't stand to be unhinged any time soon. The Chieftains have won six straight girls titles and are the five-time defending state champs.

Leading the charge for Rogue River will be the sister tandem of Lauren and Allegra Fety, who finished 3-4 in the aforementioned Chieftain Invitational.

Paced by Nathan May, Kyle Gillette and Lalo Flores, Phoenix is the overwhelming favorite to win the boys team crown.

May is the highest returning district placer, having finished a close second last year at 16:48. Gillette and Flores finished fifth and sixth, respectively.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail