SANTA CRUZ COUNTY — The Aptos High Mariners came out of nowhere to snatch the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League crown last year.

They won’t be able to hide in the shadows this time around.

The defending league champions are experienced and deep as they set their sights on again capturing the SCCAL title.

It won’t be an easy task with the likes of Santa Cruz High and San Lorenzo Valley High, which won the league championship in 2015 and last year finished runner-up to Aptos by just four points, hot on the the Mariners’ tails. But head coach Dan Gruber likes his boys’ chances of repeating.

“We’ll be right up there in league and we’ll have an outside shot to make it to state,” said Gruber, whose team last year missed the California Interscholastic Federation state meet by just 19 points. “Making it to state would be a big improvement for them.”

Not many pegged Aptos as a serious threat to capture the championship at the beginning of the 2016 season but the Mariners rounded into form at the right time and stunned the then loaded Cougars to win their first league title since 2012. This season, they figure to be the favorites. The Mariners not only have their top four runners, seniors Koya Oki, Matthew Quinn and Luis Garcia and junior Josiah Sweet, back but also picked up senior Jorge Benitez, the SCCAL 1,600-meter champion last spring, in the offseason.

Oki, Garcia and Benitez are all running the 3-mile under 17 minutes, while Quinn and Sweet are working their way down from the mid-17s.

“Those three guys have really run well for us and they’ll keep getting better as the season goes on,” Gruber said.

S.L.V. will challenge with defending SCCAL individual champion, junior Chris Anderson, leading the way. The Cougars also have junior Ross MacMillan to throw at the Mariners come league finals at Pinto Lake County Park on Nov. 2.

With star senior Hugh Chomentowski, who will undoubtedly challenge for the league’s individual title, powering the team, Santa Cruz also figures to be in the hunt toward the end of the season.

St. Francis High’s standout junior, E.J. Kelly, is also one of the top threats to capture the SCCAL individual title after taking fifth last season. Kelly will also be tabbed as one of the favorites to win a Central Coast Section individual title in the Division V race after a runner-up finish last season.

The Sharks also carry promising sophomore Paul Kane and James T. Young, a senior who chose to focus on one sport this season after splitting time between cross country and football in 2016.

In the Monterey Bay League Pacific division, the Watsonville High Wildcatz, Monte Vista Christian Mustangs and Pajaro Valley High Grizzlies, along with Monterey High, Seaside High and Christopher High, will all have a tough time matching up with Gilroy High, which rolled to a 34-point win in the season’s first Center Meet last week.

Junior Jesus Alvarez leads the Wildcatz, whom moved down from the MBL’s Gabilan division in the offseason. Fellow junior Lucas Ruiz and sophomores Miguel Leon and Damian Rivas have also impressed for Watsonville early on.

M.V.C.’s Matthew Olson finished fifth at league finals as a junior last season and is back for a final go. The Mustangs also have freshman Justin Lomeli and seniors Ivan Luna-Romo and Connor Stuart guiding the team.

Senior Luis Leonor was P.V.’s top runner in 2016 and is back for his final season. Junior Aaron Araiza has helped push Leonor during the first few weeks.

North Monterey County High will compete in the MBL-Gabilan again and look to make it back to the CCS meet after missing out last season. Senior Edgar Medina has paced the Condors early on.

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