WATSONVILLE — Fresh off a dream-like cross country season, Aptos junior distance runner Marea Zlatunich is running with confidence and setting lofty goals.

The biggest of them: make it to the California Interscholastic Federation State Championships.

“She’s healthy, she’s hungry and that’s what you want,” said Aptos longtime distance coach Dan Gruber. “You want that fire.”

Zlatunich, a back-to-back top four finisher at the CIF Division III Cross Country Championships and reigning Central Coast Section Cross Country Runner of the Year, has a renewed focus in her all-important junior season. After two straight seasons of falling short of a state meet berth by a matter of seconds, she wants to leave no doubt that she belongs on California’s biggest stage for high school track and field athletes.

She has hopes of running the 1,600-meters — her bread-and-butter event — under 4 minutes, and 50 seconds. It’s a mark that only three runners at last year’s state meet were able to hit.

“Last track season I felt like I didn’t have that confidence and that competitiveness,” Zlatunich said. “I just felt like I was out of shape and there wasn’t really a point. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better in my mindset.”

And it’s noticeable, according to Gruber.

She craves competition and steps up her game for races against the top runners. In her first race against some of the best competitors in the CCS, the Gilroy Garlic Classic on Saturday, she dusted the competition with a time of 5:06.75. It was the fastest time she’s ever run this early in the season by a long shot.

It’s a good sign for the long season ahead.

The CCS Championships aren’t until May 26 but Zlatunich will undoubtedly be tested in the months leading up to that critical day.

Santa Cruz junior Mari Friedman returns as arguably the top athlete — boy or girl — in the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League a year after winning both league titles in the 1,600 and 800, while also claiming the CCS championship in the latter and advancing to the state championships in the event.

San Lorenzo Valley senior Abigail Meck, the third-place finisher in the SCCAL last season, is also back and will compete for the 1,600 title.

The 3,200, however, is wide open with Santa Cruz’s Cate Ratliff and Aptos’ Matti Peoples both now off running for NCAA Division I programs. Third-place SCCAL finals finisher Aptos senior Annika McBride returns but Zlatunich, according to Gruber, might also dabble in the two-mile run.

“We’ll see how she does there,” said Gruber, who added that Zlatunich will run the 3,200 at the prestigious CCS Top 8 Meet. “By midseason we’ll start making some choices.”

Aptos junior sprinter Faith Dennis is the Mariners’ lone returning SCCAL champ but with their year-in, year-out depth the Mariners figure to at least push three-time defending champion Santa Cruz for the team title.

Aptos high jumper Bella Dufek, a two-time CIF State meet qualifier, is back for her senior season and will look to battle in a deep field that includes defending CCS champ Cassie Ackermann, a senior from San Lorenzo Valley.

Over in Watsonville, St. Francis lost its lone CCS qualifier in thrower Tori Yamaoka but has junior varsity stars Riley Croghan and Olivia Burke stepping up to the varsity level. Croghan, a sophomore, is a hurdler and Burke, a junior, specializes in the 800.

Mt. Madonna is back on the track after its inaugural season. Seniors Bella Bettencourt and Caroline Smith lead the way for the Hawks.

Across town at Watsonville High, head coach Rob Cornett likes his chances at the team title in the Monterey Bay League Pacific division with several of last year’s top athletes returning from a squad that finished runner-up to Alvarez.

Senior Stephanie Villa and junior Daniela Salazar are back a year after each won a pair of titles at the MBL-P Championships. Villa won the 1,600 and 3,200, while Salazar took home the 400 and 800 titles.

Cornett said Villa will shoot to break the school record in the 3,200 this season as she recovers from nagging lower leg injuries and Salazar has a solid shot at making it to the CCS finals a year after taking 10th in the section semifinals

Along with Cornett’s “big two” the Wildcatz also boast senior thrower Daniela Castro, junior jumper Jackie Barocio and junior hurdler and sprinter Gabby Felix, who has returned to the track after taking a year off to focus on soccer.

“If everything falls into place and there’s no surprises we should have a pretty good chance at finals,” Cornett said. “We’ve been close the last few years.”

Pajaro Valley and Monte Vista Christian, meanwhile, have solid individual performers returning from last season.

Grizzlies sophomore Jayleen Solorzano, a mid-distance runner and jumper, is an athletic stud that has a bright future, senior Rubi Genis is solid in the distance events and high jump and senior thrower Maria Vivanco has had a good start to the season in the shot put.

For Monte Vista Christian, senior Kylie Dillon returns after taking third in the 800 at last year’s MBL-P finals.

North Monterey County will compete in the MBL-Gabilan and has a few athletes that will vie for CCS berths.

Junior thrower Jocelyn Cazarez will try to improve on her second-place finish in the discus at last year’s MBL-G finals and advance to her first section meet.

Junior Sarah Delgado finished in the top 10 in both the 800 and 1,600 last season at MBL-G finals but has improved plenty in the offseason and is off to a quick start.

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