APTOS—The Aptos High girls’ cross country team is back in training and looking to rebuild after the loss of a few of last season’s influential teammates.
With a good amount of returning talent and a large number of newcomers, the defending Central Coast Section Division III champion Mariners have a lot to be optimistic about.
That includes making a push for the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League title they were denied in 2021.
Brooke Willoughby, a senior, is thrilled to be back at what she considers one of the most important parts of her life.
“Being a leader on the team and having been able to grow for the last four years has meant everything to me,” Willoughby said. “I am really, really excited about this season.”
Willoughby credits cross country running with teaching her several lessons including how to be a leader, how to take care of oneself and how to build relationships.
Over the past three seasons she’s also learned what it takes to consistently run at a high level.
Willoughby last season was the No. 3 ranked girl in the SCCAL, according to the Athletic.net website. She was Aptos’ highest scorer and hopes to lead them to another CCS, and possible state championship this season.
Willoughby placed third at the SCCAL Cross Country Championships to help the Mariners place second as a team.
They bounced back the following week with a CCS D-III championship behind Willoughby’s fourth place finish.
“I’m feeling really good, I worked all summer,” Willoughby said. “My teammates are all really fit and healthy and it’s really going well right now.”
Rachel Hoops, a junior, was ranked No. 4 in the SCCAL last season. She placed fourth at the SCCAL championship and seventh at the CCS finals.
Hoops has also been preparing so she can give this season her all.
“I really kind of crack down in the beginning of the season and just sort of keep building on that until the end,” Hoops said. “I like to be at my prime at the end of the season, when there are a lot of more important meets.”
Aptos coach Dan Gruber said he’s seen big improvements this season from junior Malia Moreno, currently the Mariners’ No. 3 runner.
“[Moreno] has been looking good this year, she’s really put some time into it,” Gruber said. “She’s really developing into a really solid runner.”
Ceci Garcia, a junior, has stepped up into the top-4 at Aptos. Gruber hopes Garcia can now lead the No. 4-8 runners to pick up more points this season.
“It’s been a lot of fun to practice with everyone and get to run all together,” Garcia said.
Garcia appreciates being back and working with teammates again, as they are all able to help push each other towards their goals.
Aptos lost two of last year’s main contributing seniors in Annie Eikemeyer and Mairin Mullen. Along with the points they earned, their contribution to the team’s chemistry will also be missed.
Willoughby said they’re still adjusting because they lost both a pair of elite athletes and lovable teammates.
“We’re missing a little bit of the strength we had last year but it’s nothing we can’t rebuild,” she said.
Aptos is looking to put together as many points as possible to keep up with the heavy competition in the SCCAL, specifically defending league champion Scotts Valley.
The Falcons have last season’s No.1 and No.2 ranked girls in the Boothby sisters—Amber and Ashlyn—returning.
The Mariners are set to take on Scotts Valley in their first league meet of the season on Sept. 15.
Others competing for a league title include Harbor, San Lorenzo Valley, Santa Cruz, Soquel and Mount Madonna, which is led by coach Nicholas Cabassa.
Gruber knows the challenge they’re up against in Scotts Valley, especially having lost out on the SCCAL title with a close second place finish behind the Falcons last season.
“They’ve got that No. 1 and No. 2 [runners] coming back, so that’s gonna be tough to beat them but we’ll be up there, we’ll go for it,” Gruber said.
Willoughby admits having the league opener against the only team to beat them in a meet last year is a bit nerve wracking, but she’s staying relaxed and wants to convey that to her teammates.
“I hope it doesn’t get in our heads too much because it’s just another race and we’re fully capable of running three miles,” Willoughby said.
Aptos will compete at Scotts Valley on Sept. 15, followed by the Jackie Henderson Invite at North Monterey County High on Sept. 17.