As a returning senior for Peabody’s cross-country team, Catarina Rocha’s name probably sounds familiar. She won last year’s MIAA All-State meet, crossing the line 29 seconds ahead of the runner-up.
Since that meet in November — her second consecutive top-two All-State finish — she’s racked up additional accolades, to become the runner to watch as the state’s major invitational season opens Saturday in Wrentham with the first Frank Kelley Invitational. One thing that will be absent this fall is Franklin Park. The course is closed for renovations, meaning the Catholic Memorial Invitational will take the year off.
Rocha, the Globe’s Division 1 Runner of the Year, finished third at the Foot Locker Northeast Regional championships, qualifying (for the second straight year) for the national championships in San Diego last December. Her finish in 17 minutes and 38 seconds was good for seventh place among 40 of the nation’s top high school runners.
Now, she’s looking to defend her state cross-country title. Her father and Peabody coach, Joe Rocha, said she’s ready.
“She’s doing well. She committed herself,” Joe Rocha said. “It’ll be a test for her, but I know where she is.”
Peabody enters Saturday’s race coming off a win at the Newburyport Clipper City Relays on Sept. 8, but the Tanners weren’t the only squad to leave the competition encouraged.
Lowell finished third, the first time the Red Raiders placed at the event. Coach MaryBeth McKenney’s squad is young but has a lot of potential.
She benefited from a strong middle school program as three freshmen round out her top seven. Kaley Richards, Lexi Richards, and Libby Maloney are already making a difference.
“I know they did their work over the summer,” McKenney said. “They came in really good shape and have already made an impact with the team.”
After finishing in 10th in the state meet last year, McKenney hopes the fresh feet will help the squad break the top five this season.
Coming off last year’s state championship season, Whitman-Hanson coach Keith Erwin brings back 21 runners, including five top-30 All-State runners.
“I keep reiterating to the girls that it’s a different season, it’s not the exact same team,” he said. “Everything clicked last year and we have to be prepared for bumps in the road.”
One of the Panthers’ top runners this fall could be a freshman, Sam Coletti.
Division 1 boys
Lowell has finished second to Brookline the last three years at the All-State meet. Coach Phil Maia is hoping for a different outcome this season, and early performances leave him optimistic. Last Saturday, senior Pat Coppinger tied for first at the Manchester (N.H.) Invitational with a 5-kilometer time of 15:50.
“In my 38 years at Lowell High School, that is one of the top times I’ve seen,” Maia said. “I’ve had a kid in the US Olympic trials, so I’m comparing him to some really good runners.”
Teammates Michael Kalenoski and Randy Nong also finished in the top 10, contributing to the Red Raiders’ second-place team finish.
Whitman-Hanson coach Matt Vercollone has his eye on a top-five finish after last year’s seventh place at All-State. But, more intriguing would be taking the top spot at the EMass championship, where the Panthers were runner-up last year.
“Our goal for the season is to improve on our performance at Eastern Mass, where we were runner-up to Oliver Ames,” he said.
Brookline is rebuilding, minus graduated All-Scholastic Chernet Sisay.
Division 2 girls
Bishop Feehan is chasing its fourth straight state title but will have to do it without two of last year’s top-15 finishers — runner-up Katie Powell and Erin Svensen (11th).
Coach Bob L’Homme does have third-place All-State finisher Abby McNulty back for her junior season leading the pack. L’Homme’s top three runners are juniors, complemented by a mix of sophomores and seniors.
He’ll split his squads Saturday between the invitational in Wrentham and the Great American Cross-Country Festival in Cary, N.C.
“This Saturday will be the first big tests, just to see what kind of fitness we’re in, what kind of shape we’re in,” L’Homme said. “I’m really curious to see how everyone does with a lot of competition around them.”
At Newburyport, coach Don Henninger is hoping to improve on last year’s 13th-place finish at All-States.
“That’s certainly the goal again this year — to get back to the All-State meet,” he said.
Division 2 boys
Pembroke lost state champion and Division 2 Runner of the Year Wesley Gallagher and two others to graduation but coach Greg Zopatti thinks he might have his best team ever.
“I think this is one of our better teams and we’re deeper than we’ve ever been,” Zopatti said. “There’s a lot of effort put out by a lot of these guys.”
Last Saturday in Wappinger Falls, N.Y., Pembroke finished second to national powerhouse Christian Brothers Academy (N.J.) at the Bowdoin Classic.
Bishop Feehan is coming off an All-State title and returns seniors in the top four spots.
“The only real big weekend is the state meet, but they want to know where they stand,” said L’Homme, also the boys’ coach. “They are a pretty veteran group with a nice mixture of some young kids.’’ so I’m really optimistic.”