The Thousand Oaks High boys' cross-country team is probably the most successful program in the Southern Section that has never won a state title.
However, that could change this year if the Lancers live up to their preseason billing.
Thousand Oaks, winner of four major division section championships since 1980, defeated Hart for the Division I title last season before the Indians rebounded a week later to win their third consecutive state championship with a 53-80 victory over the Lancers at Fresno's Woodward Park.
Hart's title run seems over, however. Three of the Indians' top four runners were lost to graduation while four of Thousand Oaks' top five return.
Nonetheless, 17th-year Lancer Coach Jack Farrell has refrained from dangling a state title carrot in front of his team, which is top-ranked in the state Division I preseason poll.
"I've never been one to set goals before the season based on winning this title or that title," Farrell said. "I don't think it's good to tell your team, 'It's a failure unless we do the following. . . .' I will say that if we run like I think we're capable of, it's going to take a very good team to beat us."
Junior Jeff Fischer (eighth place in last year's state championships), senior Brandon Del Campo (24th), junior Kevin Marsden (30th) and senior Chadd Aldrich (48th) will give Thousand Oaks a potent front four whose order of finish could vary from meet to meet.
Aldrich is a runner to watch. He placed 16th in last year's Kinney West regional a week after fading from 22nd to 48th in the final mile of the state championships.
"I just got too excited and went out too fast at state," Aldrich said. "We didn't get out well as a team so I kind of took it upon myself to stay up near the front of the pack. . . . But when the Hart guys passed me, I just gave up. I felt really tired at the time, but looking back, it was more of a mental letdown than anything else."
Junior Keith O'Doherty is expected to be Thousand Oaks' all-important fifth runner--the top five finishers on each team score points--and sophomores Todd Disney and Billy Paules and senior Scott Mortensen will battle for the sixth and seventh spots.
O'Doherty did not run last season, but finished ahead of Fischer and Marsden in the 1991 Marmonte League frosh-soph championships.
Farrell's biggest fear is injuries. Fischer (personal best of 9 minutes 30.75 seconds in the 3,200 meters) and Del Campo (9:31.13) had promising 1993 track campaigns cut short by physical ailments. In addition, Paules and Mortensen have been hampered by minor knee injuries during summer workouts.
"I think we're going to run as a group extremely well," Farrell said. "But staying healthy is a big concern of mine considering the track records of some of our guys."
Farrell's other major worry is that Thousand Oaks might get ambushed by an up-and-coming team early in the season, as the Lancers did to Hart in the Mt. San Antonio College Invitational last season.
Hart entered the team sweepstakes race of that meet as the top-ranked team in the nation, according to The Harrier magazine, but Thousand Oaks won with a 98-point total, well ahead of the fourth-place Indians (133).
The Lancers proved that victory was no fluke with a 53-104 trouncing of Hart in the section championships, and although the Indians came back to win the state meet, Farrell doesn't want his team to find itself in a similar position this year.
"If a team comes out of nowhere and gets in your face right away, it can shake your confidence because you don't expect anyone to be there," Farrell said. "I think that's what happened to Hart last year."
OTHER TEAMS TO WATCH
Camarillo--Thousand Oaks will not have to travel far to see top-notch competition. Four of Camarillo's top five runners return from last year's team that placed sixth in the state Division II championships.
While Farrell says the Scorpions could be one of the top five teams in the state, 12th-year Coach Mike Smith is more cautious about his team's chances. He admits, however, that this year's squad is as focused as the 1989 team that romped to the state Division I title.
"We've had as good a summer training as we've ever had," Smith said. "We're kind of young, but we have a lot of potential."
Juniors Jeremy Park (49th in last year's state championships) and Eleazar Hernandez (50th) are expected to contend for the Scorpions' No. 1 spot along with senior Ben Hill (56th).
Junior Ronnie Franco (41st in the state meet) will give Camarillo a strong No. 4 runner. Contending for the No. 5 spot are junior Mario Hernandez--no relation to Eleazar--and senior Ronald Nixon.
Sophomore twins Neil and Wade Malesich, the younger brothers of former Scorpion standout Chad Malesich, will battle for the No. 7 position on the No. 3-ranked team in the state Division II poll.