Changing of the guard at this year’s Desert Twilight Invite…

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                </div>It was a year of ‘firsts’ at the seventh annual running of the Desert Twilight Cross Country Invitational, hosted each year by Queen Creek High School. For the first time […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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It was a year of ‘firsts’ at the seventh annual running of the Desert Twilight Cross Country Invitational, hosted each year by Queen Creek High School.

For the first time in five years, the winner in the girls’ top division, the Sweepstakes run, was not wearing a Xavier Prep uniform.  And, for the first time in three years, Xavier failed to win the sweepstakes team title.

An Arizona high school also became the first local entry in three years to win the boys’ sweepstakes team title .

Dani Jones, the junior from Desert Vista High School who finished sixth overall at last year’s Twilight, crossed the finish line first this time with a time of 17:19, just two seconds ahead of a Virginia runner.  And her freshman sister, Baylee, made it a family affair, coming in third.

Jones replaces Sarah Fakler in the winner’s circle.  Fakler, the elite Xavier Prep runner who was a three-time Gatorade Arizona Cross Country Runner of the Year and has moved on to compete for the University of Virginia, won the Twilight title the last three years – and before her, teammate Jessica Tonn claimed the sweepstakes title.

It was Fakler that set the course record for the Twilight back in 2009 when she was still a sophomore.  She toured the looping, light-lined course at Mesa’s Toka Sticks Golf Course in a blistering time of 16:32.

On the boys’ side, it was Nate Rodriguez from Corona del Sol High School that claimed this year’s sweepstakes individual title, covering the 5K course in 15:08, which eclipsed the time of 15:12 that Cibola High‘s Bernie Montoya clocked to win last year as a senior – but was still six seconds behind the winning pace he set the year before.

Montoya, who won three state titles at Cibola, accepted a scholarship to run at Arizona State this year.

Both Rodriguez and Jones were the favorites to win this year, as was Corona picked to win the team title.  The Aztecs had won all four invitationals in which they competed this year coming into the Twilight.  They posted 102 points for the win, propelled by a sweep of the top-three places. Rodriguez’s teammates finished right behind him, with Ryan Normand coming in second at 15:10 and Marcus Wheeler next in 15:22.

The last two years, the boys’ title was relinquished to out-of-state schools, with a squad from Los Alamos, NM, winning last year, and Great Oak High School in California claiming the title the year before.

But Xavier, the three-time defending Division I state champion, was expected by most to extend their winning streak at the Twilight.  Last year, the Gators were the No. 2-ranked team in the country and seven of their runners finished in the top 15 to dominate the meet, winning with an overwhelming score of 28 points.

Four runners from that 2012 squad have returned this year.  Senior Shelby Brown‘s sixth place was the top finish for the Gators.

There were 150 schools participating this year, including a handful of teams from as far away as Virginia.  It’s that addition of out-of-state teams that differentiates this event from others during the season.  The top 20 girls’ and boys’ teams are placed in the Milesplit Sweepstakes races, while the other teams compete in the varsity sections.

A total of 19 races were underway by around 4 o’clock yerterday afternoon, but the top eight races don’t get underway until twilight, or later.  And that’s what gives this event, which always includes most of the best runners in the state who use it to prepare for sectionals and the state championships, a festival-like atmosphere as the runners head off into the night.