Palos Verdes, Corona del Mar and Dana Hills high schools have the top three boys' cross-country teams in the Southern Section 4-A. They are very close--separated by a mere four seconds at last week's Southern Section preliminaries.
Each team is led by one or two front-runners.
Top-ranked Palos Verdes has David Scudamore, who recorded the fastest time of the day (15 minutes 24 seconds for three miles) last Saturday at the Southern Section preliminaries.
Corona del Mar, ranked second, has the one-two punch of Eddie Lavelle and Jim Robbins.
Dana Hills, ranked third, is led by Mike Tansley and Javier Barrera.
But when these teams line up for the Southern Section final Saturday at Mt. San Antonio College, these front-runners can do only so much to help their teams' scores.
According to the coaches, the difference between winning and losing may depend on the performances of the teams' fourth and fifth runners.
At Palos Verdes, the pressure points to Masa Hasegawa and Blake Boggess. At Corona del Mar, it's on Paul Scott and Hunter Pierce. At Dana Hills, it's Fermin Segura and Chris Roberts.
"In cross-country, the fourth and fifth men are the heart of your team," said Joe Kelly, Palos Verdes coach. "You can win a lot of important meets without a heavy hitter, but without that fourth or fifth guy (running well), forget it."
Because all team scores are calculated by combining the numerical places of a team's top five runners, the performances of the fourth and fifth men often make the difference between winning and losing because their range of scoring is generally much wider than that of the top runners.
"Coach (Bill Sumner) tells me about it all the time," Scott said. "If the top guys run 10 seconds faster in a race, they might have one guy to pass. If I run 10 seconds faster, I probably pass 10 guys."
Of course, having one or two top front-runners is also integral to a team's success, as higher places mean lower scores.
Any one of the top runners mentioned above has the potential to win the race. But as long as they place in the top 10 range, the differences between their earned scores won't be that great.
In calculating a team's strategy before a race, many coaches look at past race results to see where the opposing team's strength lies. There, they can calculate where each of their runners has to place in order to win.
Dana Hills Coach Tim Butler lets his runners learn for themselves.
"They (the fourth and fifth men) have seen over the season where they have helped or hurt us," Butler said. "I emphasize to each kid what he needs to do, but he should be able to see it, too."
And act on it, if he can.
Scott, a junior, ran a 16:16 at the Mt. San Antonio College Invitational this year, and a 16:31 at last week's preliminaries. He is one of the Sea Kings' best downhill runners, an important skill for the hilly Mt. SAC course.
Pierce, also a junior, started running only 18 months ago. He is tough on the hills and has improved steadily all season, running a 16:18 at Mt. SAC last week.
Segura, 16:12 last week, was the Dolphins' top runner last year, but a knee injury led to arthroscopic surgery in August, and, according to Butler, Segura's tenacity and hill-running abilities should give Dana Hills a big boost Saturday.
Roberts, 16:44 last week, is known for a tremendous finishing kick, but the key, Butler said, is having Roberts run closer to Segura through the race.
Hasegawa (16:34) doesn't have great speed, according to Kelly, but his emotional toughness has helped him to finish as high as second man for Palos Verdes.
Boggess (16:37) has good speed (2:02 in the 800 meters) and likes to run from behind and finish the final half-mile with a strong kick.
"We're all pretty much in the same situation," Kelly said. "The race will probably come down to those (fourth and fifth) guys. Of course, anything can happen in the final."
Said Sumner: "Let's face it, the three teams are matched real close. It's going to come down to whoever wants it more."