North Central cross country coach Jon Knight was struck by the odd nature of his conversation with his two senior team leaders this week of the state meet.
He told Casey Adams his best chance to win an individual title was to hang with the leaders another two minutes and then outsprint them, and told Vince Hamilton he needed to push the pace earlier to build a lead so he couldn’t be outsprinted.
“I was telling Casey what to do to beat Vince and Vince what to do to beat Casey,” Knight said. “I see them as interchangeable parts. I don’t care who is our first man.”
With or without an individual title, if Hamilton, Adams and their teammates run up to snuff, North Central will have its fifth consecutive State 3A championship Saturday at Sun Willow Golf Course in Pasco.
“State is wildly important,” said Adams, even though NC has beaten the top contenders and will run in a regional meet the next weekend. “You’ve got to take it one day at a time. … With how good University is, how good Kamiakin is, how good the state is in general, you can’t look past anybody. If we go into state thinking how we’re going to do in regionals next week, it’s not going to work out. We have to be firing on all cylinders.
“We know what we’re capable of, we know the hard work we put in. … It’s nice to know our past record against these teams, but in the end, it’s not the World Series. … Every day is a new race for everybody and going into Saturday it doesn’t matter what we did in league, what we did in regionals, it’s whoever shows up.”
“It’s great to have a bunch of teammates you can rely on,” Hamilton said.
It’s obvious running style isn’t the only difference between Hamilton and Adams.
The gregarious Adams was the athlete coming into high school, though not necessarily a runner.
“I did the track thing in middle school, but I was more of a sprinter,” Adams said. “It was a big deal for me to start running because I was always the football, basketball, track guy. That was my plan the whole way. To be involved with this was never envisioned.”
Retired NC teacher Len Long, still an assistant coach, talked Adams into running.
“There is something about this experience you don’t get in other sports,” Adams said. “I noticed that early on. It’s probably the most important decision I’ve made in my life so far.”
He said the unique experience was the camaraderie amongst runners, not just teammates.
“There are very few instances where you can take two teams that just competed hard and then they cool down together, relax and joke with each other,” he said. “There’s this feeling about running, we’re all in it together. … You don’t have that showmanship (and trash-talking) that goes along with other sports. … When you look at it, runners are the only people that get (running).”
Hamilton, much more reserved, discovered that as well.
“I played basketball,” he said. “I didn’t do cross country my freshman year. I got talked into it because I wanted to get into better shape for basketball. I ended up loving the sport just because of the feeling you get every time you run. You’re going to get better every single time.
“I really wasn’t that great of a basketball player. I was really short. I just needed to find a sport that I could be good at. It took me a long time. I was no all-star coming in. I was in last place in my first race ever.”
That would be his sophomore year, when he ended up 22nd in the all-city JV meet to end the season.
Adams, meanwhile, was a member of the Indians’ third consecutive state championship team, the one that went on to win the national championship.
That title team was led by seniors Andrew Kimpel (second), Jeff Howard (third) and Leon Dean (fifth), plus juniors Ben Johnston (fourth) and Alex Avila (10th). Adams was 24th.
The Indians couldn’t duplicate that team performance of just 24 points last fall, but Johnston came through with a state title, Avila was fourth and Adams sixth and Hamilton 14th.
This fall Hamilton has been running first.
“It’s hard to tell when freshmen,” Knight said. “I’ve had a couple of kids that were all-city as ninth-graders and never ran again. Kimpel was 22nd as a freshman. If they get the bug, how you do as a freshman doesn’t tell how you’ll end up.
“When you first see it is when they buy into the program with the older kids. At first they can’t keep up, but if they show up, the older kids respect them. That’s when you know.”
“One thing they have in common is they’re both incredible competitors and very ambitious.” track coach Kelly Walters said.
“It was my teammates,” Hamilton said. “I would see how good they are and I wanted to be with them. I always wanted to run with people better than me. I would never think I’m going to be up there. I just took baby steps. Every time it got closer and closer I thought it was possible, but I never thought it would be anything like this.”
Both runners said it was the legacy of the older runners that pushed them to the level they’ve enjoyed this year.
“It’s not even races so much, you’re looking at workouts,” Adams said. “You’re capable of measuring yourself against national-type competitors. We can compare our team right now to teams of the past. We have enough statistics about what is good in the North Central cross county program.
“Vince and I have personally been moving right up toward the top. It’s been really fun to be part of. Andy and Leon come through and rewrote everything … and then Ben comes along the next year and passes them. Vince and I come along and we’re running right where Ben was. Neat to have that because you see the younger guys … running where Andy Kimpel was, where Leon Dean was as sophomores.”
When Adams and Hamilton stop to think about it, they are quite amazed, in their own way that sets them apart.
“It’s really surreal. … to have those heroic people we looked up to (and now) to be those heroic people to these freshmen,” Adams said.