While significant meets are still a few months away, early bragging rights will be on the line when local high school runners hit 3-mile courses Saturday for a pair of early-season cross-country meets.

Most of the area’s teams will be split between the East Bakersfield Invitational at Lake Ming, and the McFarland USA Invitational, giving coaches and runners an opportunity to see how they measure up against local competition.

“It’s an early benchmark, basically to see where the kids are at,” said Ridgeview boys coach Greg Dabbs, who led the Wolf Pack to the Division III state title last season. “It’s a good opportunity to finally get to run on a course. There’s always spots to fill in, most of the team is set, but you never know. Things change week to week. We have some young kids that have a lot of potential, as well, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do.”

Ridgeview returns three of Bakersfield’s top runners, including BVarsity All-Area first-team selections Alex Cuevas and Ased Adus, and talented junior Gerardo Moreno. Cuevas won the D-III section title, while Adus and Moreno were third and fourth, respectively, last year.

“You always have high expectations every year,” said Dabbs, whose team also returns senior Payton Fox. Fox suffered from a stress fracture in his leg and missed all of last season.

“Our first goal is to always do well in league and hopefully Valley and state," Dabbs continued. "We just need to put in work. It’s early. It’s not even September yet. For us it’s just about getting a race in and seeing where they’re at.”

In their season opener earlier this month, Ridgeview finished second in the McLane Highlander Invitational at Fresno’s Woodward Park. Cuevas placed second, followed by Fox. Moreno was 10th. Adus didn’t compete in the event, but is expected to participate in the East Invite.

“For me, this meet is more about taking the whole team," Dabbs said. “We’re really big at Ridgeview that it’s a team sport. So I’m just as excited to see the frosh-soph and JV kids get to go to their first meets, some of them it’s the first meet they’ve ever been to. So that’s pretty fun to watch as a coach.”

Liberty and Highland also figure to be two of the better boys teams in town.

The Patriots’ Ethan Jones finished first at the Highlander, crossing the line more than 16 seconds ahead of Cuevas on the 5,000-meter course. The Scots are led by junior Jacob Yagers, who captured the Southeast Yosemite League title and finished eighth at the D-II section finals last year.

Other boys runners to look for this season include Francis Johnson, senior, Foothill; Adham Maher, senior, Stockdale; and Juanathan Reyes, senior, Stockdale.

On the girls side, it starts with McFarland, but Liberty, Frontier, Wasco, Centennial, Independence and Ridgeview all feature talented squads as well.

The Cougars are led by two-time BVarsity All-Area cross country runner of the year Hilda Gonzalez — and she’s just a junior.

“She’s probably the second-best returning runner in the section,” said McFarland girls coach Thomas Valles, whose running talents were featured in the movie ‘McFarland, USA’ memorializing the school’s first state title in 1988. “I’m junior heavy. I have a lot of juniors that have probably been running together since kindergarten. This is the best chemistry that I’ve had as far as their attitudes. They’ve really come a long way.”

In addition to Gonzalez, Valles relies heavily on his daughter, senior Brianna Valles, juniors Kayli Gonzales and Kaitlyn Hernandez, and an array of talented sophomores and freshmen.

“I have about 10 girls that can possibly make the varsity team this year,” Valles said. “So I have my sixth and seventh girl, but the next three girls are right there in line. And they’re competing every weekend trying to make the team.”

Centennial also figures to make an impact under first-year head coach David Little. The Golden Hawks placed three girls in the top 11 at the Highlander, including freshman Kylee Quinton, who was eighth. Sophomore Maddie Baytosh and junior Hannah McClain were 10th and 11th, respectively. Senior Allison Staricka also figures to make an impact for Centennial.

“We have a young team, but we have some strong returners," Little said. “Our girls team should be strong. We have two seniors, and the rest are high-quality freshmen and sophomores. I think the varsity team is doing very well. There’s room for growth, but I also believe they’re going to get out there and show what Centennial has to offer.”

Other girls runners to look for this season: Taylor Smith, junior, Stockdale; Haley Ulloa, junior, Highland; Ellen Palmgren, senior, Liberty.

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