New individual winners at Conley Invite, even on girls’ side

One of the most interesting aspects of the Doug Conley Cross Country Invitational – apart from the fact that it is 40 years old and still considered one of the premier high school events each season – is its change of ownership each year.

At least on the boys’ side, where Rio Rico HS, the small school located down in Santa Cruz county on the border with Mexico, won this year’s team title with 72 points.   Rio Rico had five runners place in the top 20, led by Rob Contreras (16:07.89) in seventh place.

In the five years that we’ve been covering the Conley, there have been five different team winners in the boys’ competition.  Rio Rico followed Highland HS in 2011, Alhambra HS in 2010, Mountain View HS in 2009, and Shadow Mountain HS in 2008.  But those are all in the big-school divisions; Rio Rico competes in Division III.

And in the boys’ individual competition, there has not been a repeat winner in more than two decades.  This year the honor went to Andy Trouard from Division II Salpointe Catholic in Tucson, who finished the course at Rolling Hills Golf Course in Tempe in a time of 15:36.48 – well ahead of last year’s winning time of 16:06.48.

But it’s an entirely different scenario on the girls’ side of the competition.

Dani Jones from Desert Vista HS in Phoenix won the girls’ individual title with a time of 18:47.50.  But she got her chance because Rolanda Jumbo, who set a course record in winning the event  in 2010 and then won again last year, has graduated.

Last year was a banner year for tiny Chinle High School because not only was Jumbo running for that school, but so was the boys’ winner, Johnathan Yazzie – who also graduated at the end of the season.

Before Jumbo’s two-year reign, Sarah Schmidt from Mountain View HS got a one-year turn when Xavier‘s Jessica Tonn graduated after holding the title for several years.  Since Jones is still a sophomore, there may be another repeat champion again next year – particularly if the youngster continues to improve the way she has since her freshman year when the best she could manage at the Conley was 30th place.

And that is just one of the interesting side stories to this year’s Conley.  The boys’ winner, Trouard, didn’t even get started in cross country until this year – and he’s already earned a top-25 national ranking from  He won multiple state track titles in distance events (800m/ 1,600m/3,200m), but was focused on swimming his first three years.

The course at Rolling Hills is not the easiest to navigate, especially for a newcomer to the sport, because of its undulating terrain.  The golf course gets its name from lots of small hills that dot the landscape, making it more difficult than the flatter courses that are more common in the sport.  The Conley began at Rolling Hills, but moved to Kiwanis Park in Tempe for awhile before returning several years ago.

And then there was the excitement at the finish line this year, similar to what happened in 2010 when both the girls’ and boys’ races went right down to the wire, with mere seconds separating the first two finishers on each side.

This year, it was even closer.

Tempe High‘s Diana Garcia finished the girls’ event in 18:48.93, a little more than a second behind Jones, and Trouard was challenged throughout the final stretch of the 3.1-mile course by Nathan Rodriguez from Tempe’s Corona del Sol HS.   Trouard had to find a big kick in the final 100 meters to slip past Rodriguez, who finished in 15:37.00 for a whisker-thin margin of .52 seconds.

And one other story beneath the surface was the display of depth once again by Xavier Prep in the girls’ competition.  The Gators won going away – with their ‘B’ team.  Their 52 points put them comfortably ahead of runner-up Desert Vista HS, which had a total of 79 points.

Xavier placed three runners in the top 10, including McKenna Gaffney in third, Lauren Kinzle in fourth and Savanna Gaffney in eighth.

This is not the first time Xavier has sent the second string to compete at the Conley.  They’ve been doing it for a number of years, as have other schools who want to give some of their runners who haven’t competed that much during the season one final chance in a quality event.  For Xavier, the decision was made to hold out its better runners and rest them for the prestigious Mount SAC Invite next week in California.  That event puts them on the national stage.

But, even without their top runners competing, Xavier won the Conley last year and finished second the year before when Desert Vista HS slipped past them to win by two points.

And, if Xavier had not been taking this approach the last few years, Sarah Fakler would have been competing and would have stepped in to take over holding the title when Tonn graduated.  Fakler, a senior now, won the Twilight Invitational in Mesa a couple of weeks ago – her third straight title in that event.  She would likely have been her third straight at the Conley as well.

Bernie Montoya from Cibola High School, who has won the Twilight the last two years, also skipped the Conley again this year.

(Photo: Margot Kelly)