FARMINGTON — Less than a month away from the cross-country state meet, the Kirtland Central girls team suddenly looks like a force to be reckoned with.
Until Saturday's Zuni Invitational, the KC girls squad had been coming along slowly. But coach Lenny Esson had a feeling that once the middle school cross-country season ended — making the runners on that team eligible for varsity promotion — his team had the potential to take a major step forward.
That major step was actually more like a major leap for Kirtland Central, which placed first out of 13 schools at the Zuni Invitational after bringing up three eighth graders.
Before Saturday, the Lady Broncos failed to finish higher than sixth in any meet this season. But with 69 points, they easily toppled second-place East Mountain's score of 84, and cruised past third-place Shiprock (119) and fourth-place Navajo Prep (130).
"It was a big surprise for us, a big shock that we were able to pull off that big win," Esson said. "We knew the girls could run, we just didn't really know what to expect from other schools going in."
Freshly called-up eighth graders Michaela Hawkins (fourth overall), Autumn Harrison (ninth) and Chynitta Yazzie (10th) had huge impacts on the girls race. LaKyla Yazzie, KC's top individual in every other meet this season, did her part as well by taking eighth.
Shiprock coach Alice Kinlichee said her youthful team has surprised her in a positive way all season, and the Lady Chieftains did so again with a third-place finish, even without top-two runner Khadija Lapahie, who missed the meet with a minor injury.
Destiny Rockwell, Shiprock's other top runner, took third overall.
"She's just so mentally tough," Kinlichee said of Rockwell. "She just stayed right there at the front the whole race. I'm really happy with her."
KC's boys took third out of 13, as Kashon Harrison finished first overall, like he's done in every 2016 meet he's competed in. His first-place time was 16 minutes and seven seconds.
Navajo Prep's boys finished 15 points behind KC and took fourth. Shiprock landed in seventh.
Aztec teams run well in Bloomfield
Hailey Chapman and Ashlynn Atwood took second and third, respectively, in Thursday's Bloomfield Invitational on Thursday at Lybertee Park in Bloomfield, propelling the Lady Tigers to an easy first-place finish among four qualifying schools.
Aztec's 23 points were 15 better than second-place Wingate.
"I think the girls are finally starting to jell together," Aztec coach Steve Lanier said. "Their pack times were pretty good, which means they stayed together. There were a couple pretty treacherous hills there, and so they worked well together to get up those hills."
Bloomfield's girls took third with 64 points and were paced by ninth-place finishing Katelin Kosea.
Andrew Day had a fantastic day on the boys side, finishing the 5K in Bloomfield in 18:46, nearly a full minute faster than Cuba's D'Angelo Herrera. However, Day's great race still couldn't catapult Aztec into first, as Cuba's 34 points were 20 better than the second-place Tigers.
Bloomfield was well behind Wingate in last place, but coach Scott Hale said he still thinks both of his XC squads have come a long way this year.
"The girls are getting closer to the competition, and you see those point totals, they're a lot better overall than they've been in years passed, for sure," Hale said. "Everyone looks a little bit more dedicated this year. I've noticed that in practice."
Clayton White has been Bloomfield's best runner for a couple of years now, and he represented his school well by taking third behind Day and Herrera.
"It was a tough course, but Clayton got up that first hill real quick and kept it going," Hale said.
Farmington squads place sixth in Ancient Trails Invitational
Farmington was without half of both varsity rosters on Saturday in Cortez, Colo., for "various reasons," according to coach Kevin Deswood, and as a result, took sixth out of six in the boys race and sixth out of seven on the girls side during the Ancient Trails Invitational.
Tanin McDermott took seventh among boys after Solomon Johnson paced the Scorpion runners for the first mile and a half.
Kassidy Nez, who is also playing volleyball for FHS this fall, placed ninth in the girls run. Deswood said he's hoping she can make it to state after missing the cut by two seconds last season.
"She's just now getting into shape, and I think she's putting herself in a position to do well at district, and then hopefully make it down to state this year," Deswood said.
Farmington, Aztec, Kirtland Central, Bloomfield, Shiprock, Navajo Prep and Piedra Vista will all compete in next Saturday's Rio Rancho Jamboree. That race begins at 9 a.m.
Jake Newby covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.