The Meet of Champs is as big as it gets in these parts, as all the strong cross-country units in the Valley come to one pasture to duke it out for the last important meet before district.

The place was Monte Cristo Country Club on a pleasant afternoon Saturday, and the Champs is a lengthy affair, starting with sub-varsity and ending with two sets of varsity races on both girls’ and boys’ sides. Meaning there’s a ton of down time.

While they waited for the last couple of races, the Edinburg girls, who have been ranked near the apex of the heap all season, were lounging around on their mats, under the ubiquitous tent cities that dot the cross country landscape around the Valley every weekend.

This would mark the first time all fall that Tencha Lancaster’s striders were going to compete with all their athletes healthy and accounted for. Volleyballers Alyssa Perez and Beckah Rodriguez strolled in, after their net team had defeated Harlingen earlier in the day.

For Perez, it would be just her second competition as she sat out the bulk of the schedule with a much-publicized heart ailment, and the spunky senior was raring to go. Rodriguez had run five of the eight outings, missing three due to various reasons, mainly volleyball.

“I prefer to run first and then go to volleyball,” said the junior Rodriguez, who according to Lancaster has been among the team’s most consistent performers. “But this one is during the day, so we had to come from volleyball.”

No matter, her coach was glad to see them anyway.

“Yes, this is a first, we have everyone,” said the hard-charging coach, whose bunch won the inaugural Meet of Champs last year. “We’ve done well this season considering we have yet to enjoy a full complement of girls.”

The race was for bragging rights Valley-wide, but also would act as a barometer for the District 31-5A meet, to be run at P-SJ-A Memorial Oct. 24.

“I told the girls it’s all about their performance here today, not necessarily the times,” Lancaster said. “We will send some of the girls to Harlingen next week, but this is it, they will be placed in the district meet based on how they respond to the challenge of running against top competition.”

The 2-mile course at Monte Cristo was littered with fans, cameras in hand, and runners warming up for their races.

The North girls mingled with the Cougar boys at the school enclave about 50 yards from EHS’s set-up. Freshman Jenyse Vazquez stretched out, sporting white-rimmed runner’s shades and putting her lean, muscled frame through the works to get prepared. Nearby, boys’ senior standouts Luis Serrano and Joe Morales sat around shooting the breeze, while members of the Hidalgo team tossed a football back and forth next door.

The elite-division boys (the varsity division is for second-liners, with the top 6 set for the elite group) had an interminable wait, and would not take their marks until well after 6:30.

Former Coog standout Paco Farias, now running for The University of Texas-Pan American, has been helping out Coach Homer Martinez, North’s Hall of Fame mentor, these days.

“I am going to try to become a coach some day, so this is good for me,” said Farias, fingering a manila folder with runner/race information inside. “I have learned a lot from Coach Martinez so far and sometimes I come over to the school and do my running with the team.”

It figures that Farias is set on coaching as a career; as a runner at North, he was known as an answer guy from the start of his stint with the Coogs.

“I always did the research,” he recalled. “We would go to meets and everyone would be asking me for a scouting report on who we were going to run against. They’d be like, ‘How do you know all this stuff?’”

Back at the Lady Bobcat island, the latest installments of the Galloso Legend were warming up. Senior Robin Galloso and her freshman sister, Elizabeth, readied for the event, hoping to climb into the top 20 at the penultimate match before the league championships.

Robin resembles oldest sister Diana while the long-limbed Liz takes after Hilda, who graduated last year. Both Hilda and Diana are now competing, like Farias, for UTPA. The Galloso Mom was in attendance, and one can see where the sisters have gotten some of their incredible ability; still solidly built, Mama G looks like she could stride out there among the youngsters and smash into the Top 20 in a heartbeat.

Soon, the varsity races began and Martinez took time out from running his runners to have a quick cross-country chat.

“We’ve had a great year so far, we finally have some seniors who are leading the way for us,” said Martinez, who has been coaching the sport for over 30 years. “I guess we’re still ranked No. 1 in the Valley, but I am more concerned with district. And our overall goal is to do well in regionals, last year Luis went to state as an individual; we want to get the team there this time if we can.”

Now the elite girls were lined up, the phalanx of runners stretching for 40 yards or more, brightly colored uniforms and tense, taut runners inside them chomping at the bit. There is nothing like the moments before a vital race begins, from the drumbeat of excitement pulsing through the crowd to the studies of concentration and intensity visible from the runners on the line.

Far right was the North group, with EHS holding down the far left, symbolic of the rivalry between the two squads that is as seasonal as the cooling trend that hits at about this time every year.

The winding path is a challenge for the athletes but for the spectators as well. Many wait at the finish line after observing the start, but others brave the circuitous route to try and follow the competitors on their track. It ain’t easy, as it takes a series of sprints back and forth across the gut of the course to arrive at the appointed time before the throng of runners do.

At the end, none of the well-touted EHS girls was able to outdistance the smooth freshman from North, Vazquez, who barely looked winded as she cruised into the ending point, fourth among a long list of great and older gals.

After a fantastic finish, Vazquez, who has been climbing the charts each week, said she felt good the whole way, but admitted that, “I still don’t think I have reached my full potential.”

North came home second to Sharyland, five points back of the Lady Rattlers, with Ariana Lumbreras (seventh, passed a foe at the wire) and Kim Burgoa (19th) in the tops, while Rodriguez of EHS was 20th, her team a distant and disappointing fifth in team standings.

Serrano did his thing, pacing the boys’ field in 15:19.90, good enough to place the Coogs first, a full 28 points ahead of second-place Sharyland. Morales came fifth with teammates Luis Reyes (11th), Adrian Coronado (17th) and Adrian Sepulveda (19th) helping win points. The top EHS runner was veteran Omar Trujillo in 15th.