The Shiprock cross country teams are prepared for another strong season.

The Lady Chieftains are looking like strong contenders to defend their 3A state title after returning five of their seven runners from last year.

All-State team member Cassandra Peters, who was Shiprock's top finisher at state last year, will be back, along with Megan Johnson, Melanie Secody, Shania Harry and Shandiin Yessilth.

A key for the Lady Chiefs' title this year will be the battle for the final two spots in the state lineup after a pair of strong newcomers emerged at a scrimmage race in Kirtland. "We have several girls who will compete for a place in the lineup," said Shiprock girls head coach Alice Kinlichee. "Lacey Howe finished alongside Melanie Secody at the scrimmage. She is a newcomer. Tanisha Begay, a very talented freshman, was my fifth runner at the scrimmage. She came up to run for the high school track team as an eight grader last spring."

Kinlichee knows repeating won't be easy and expects strong competition during the district and state meets. "Sandia Prep and St. Mike's will be the teams to battle (at state) again as they return most of their girls," she said. "And on the district scene, Wingate always has seasoned runners, and Thoreau has a much improved team, so it will not be a run in the park for us."

Nonetheless, Kinlichee believes the team has what it takes to repeat as state champions.

"Maintaining their focus at each meet and another year of experience will surely help in making those goals a reality," she said. "But the season has its ups and downs and they will just have to persevere through hard work, confidence and commitment."

On the boys side, Shiprock looks to recover from a sixth place finish in the state meet last year.

"After a disappointing showing at the 2012 state meet the guys put in a solid off season of not only running but staying active all around. The focus this season is finishing strong," said head coach Brian Paniagua. "A humbling lesson was well learned the hard way at the state meet last November where we were favored to finish in the top 3 team wise but ended up far out of that range."

Like the girls' team, the Chieftain boys' team returns five of their seven state runners including district champion Shawvan Levi.

"(He's) a beast of a runner with tons of potential to be one of the best runners SHS has produced," Paniagua said of Levi.

Joining the junior Levi on the Chieftain squad are seniors Kelsey Maxwell, Manuel IC and Justin Begay along with sophomore Dominic Crosby.

Paniagua is still looking for other runners to step up and fight for varsity spots.

"Like always at this point in the season, the varsity squad isn't carved in stone, yet. We'll be looking to Shawvan to continue to be a rising force in the distance running landscape statewide as well as strong showings from Kelsey, Manuel, Justin and Dom," he said. "The remaining two varsity spots are highly contested at the moment."

Paniagua is expecting at least two of runners to emerge from the group of Zach Ben, Lemuel Begay, Anthony Begay, William Todachinnie, Bryson Reed and Aaron Gould to help complete his varsity squad.

"By having six guys with the ability to fill the remaining varsity spots, I feel this is the strongest JV team we've had in a while," Paniagua said. "That definitely adds depth to the team over all and I can mix up the varsity team from time to time as the course may dictate."

Both teams will begin their seasons on Friday at a meet hosted by Rehoboth.

Joshua Perry covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577 or Follow him on Twitter @jperrysuu.