“You can't really beat that. It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime type of days for sure,” Siuslaw cross country coach Chris Johnson said of his teams’ final meet of the season, where both the boys and girls swept the OSAA 4A State Championships.
Aside from both teams having runners place among the top 10 out of more than 80 runners in each race, both the boys and the girls teams came in first overall in the state.
Johnson discussed how they felt fortunate, for one, just to be able to conduct the competition at the state level.
“We were just really excited that we had a chance to do this,” said Johnson. “It's been such a rocky tumultuous time for everybody, so to get back to some semblance of normal was really exciting.”
Johnson explained that, at the beginning of the season, there was concern over whether there was even going to be a state meet when the OSAA decided to give the Culminating Week back to the schools.
“But I told them all along that we'd figure out a way to make this thing happen,” said Johnson, who explained that each of the 4A leagues doing their part was what enabled them to even hold the event. “I think it's really great that all the rest of the 4A leagues were cooperative, and they held their district meets for qualifying purposes — and runners got to have what amounts to a regular state meet.”
The only difference was that, for the first time in 50 years, the meet wasn’t held at Lane Community College. Instead, as with the previous week’s district meet, Saturday’s state meet was held at Marist High School — raising some concern that the competition wouldn’t feel like a state-level championship meet.
Not so, said Johnson.
“This is the 26th state meet I've been to as a coach,” he said, “and I was at three as an athlete — and it felt exactly the same as any other state meet. And I know the kids felt the same way. So, we feel like we're just really fortunate, and it was a group effort.”
According to Johnson, it took the cooperation of many to make the event work, with coaches and individuals from several schools putting their heads together.
“We made some adjustments, made sure was actually the right distance and did some cosmetic things to it so it felt more like a championship-caliber meet,” Johnson said. “All in all, I think it was it was great, it was a good course.”
The event was quite successful, and the efforts put in by Johnson and the other schools involved were much appreciated by athletes and spectators alike.
“Kids like to finish on the track in front of a bunch of people,” said Johnson. “So, it had a great feel. The coaches and athletes were super excited and thankful to be there. I've never received more people coming to me, thanking me — coaches, athletes and parents — for helping put this thing together. So, that was really neat.”
As far as the race, the teams’ results speak volumes.
The girls finished with 81 points, coming out ahead of Sisters with 87, Baker with 89, and La Grande with 117. Siuslaw junior Rylee Colton finished fifth individually (19:34.7) and the only Lady Viking to finish in the top 10. Seniors Brea Blankenship and Gracie Freudenthal each finished in the top 20, in 13th (20:23.5) and 16th (20:43.1), respectively.
Johnson also discussed how impressive the performance was of the two freshmen on his girls team.
“I had four freshmen run,” said Johnson. “That's the first time that those four kids have ever run in a cross country race at the high school level with more than 40 people in their whole race. So, it was a totally different deal to have that dropped on [them], and the way those freshmen performed was just incredible.”
Jane Lacouture (21:26.8) and Corduroy Holbrook (21:51.5) had the added pressure of knowing that there were only five girls, explained Johnson. “And if you don't have five girls finish in a cross country meet, you're incomplete and you don't have a team score — so those five girls had that pressure on them all year long. Those are two pretty special kids for them to be able to withstand that pressure and then perform at the level that they did speaks volumes about their toughness.”
Johnson added that every single girl on the team had their best race of the year. “Rylee really lead the way for us, but I really think Jane and Gracie did a lot of great work the last mile to help us catch Marist and stay ahead of Baker,” he said.
With respect to the boys team, Siuslaw came in first with 70 points, followed by Philomath with 77, Sisters with 81 and Hidden Valley with 96. The boys had two runners finish in the top 10; Chad Hughes came in eighth with a time of 16:19.4, and Samuel Ulrich came finished ninth at 16:23.4.
Coming in among the top 20 were Kyle Hughes in 15th (16:48.5) and Jaxson Jensen in 19th (16:59.7). Securing the win for the team to finish fifth for Siuslaw was Brayden Linton (17:24.4). Also finishing for the Vikings were Dylan Jensen (17:45.2) and Jacob Blankenship (18:42.5).
The boys were unfortunately without one of their usual top five finishers due to an injury.
“We were without Ryan Jennings, which was just a killer,” said Johnson. “Poor kid got hurt the last week of the season, and we tried to kind of nurse it along — but he just couldn't walk without limping.”
Jennings has two sports seasons left this year as a standout in track and wrestling, “So, for him to run and then not be able to run as fast as he’d want to, and then to risk prolonging his injury when he can get back — it didn't make any sense,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson, some encouragement and positive reinforcement in the middle of the race were able to help push the runners along to where they needed to be.
“We were one point down at the two-mile mark, and at that point in time, other than Chad, we had kids that were right along with our kids the whole way,” said Johnson. “So, I just let them know, ‘You’ve got to beat those guys. If you beat those guys, we're going to win.’ And they were able to do it.”
Johnson said Jaxson Jensen had a great race. “By far his best race of the year,” said Johnson. “He passed me at two miles and he's right with Philomath guys, and I said, ‘You have to beat those two.’ And he just nodded his head like ‘I got it. I'm going to do it.’ And he did. And what a way to finish a career.”
Even with the pandemic, this year’s group of cross country runners seemed to have that something special needed to go all the way.
“We've had some good teams and a bunch of league championships over the last few years,” admitted Johnson, “but we really haven't put together this kind of a race at a state meet. We've certainly run up to expectations and beyond.”
At last week’s district meet, Johnson said he thought there were some teams that had a hard time putting together [a team] and getting people to be consistent. That wouldn’t be the same at state.
“I knew that Joe Fulton at Philomath, Josh Nordell at Sisters, Suzy Cole at Baker and Connor Kasler at Hidden Valley — those programs are dialed in and they were going to be ready to go,” he said of the competition at state.
While those teams may have been ready to go, Johnson’s Vikings were able to do the work necessary to take home the titles.
After a monumental season in cross country, Johnson’s runners will take to the track (and field) for Season Three (spring), with the opening meet set for April 20 at Siuslaw High School.
Events begin at 3:30 p.m.