When Kieran Mahoney’s Central Valley Bears line up for today’s state Class 4A boys high school cross country championship race in Pasco, he does not want his runners thinking about what they’re running for.
Not about trophies. Not about medals. Not about glories and not about final career races.
None of that, he insists.
“I want them thinking about who they’re running for,” the third-year coach said. “Cross country is the ultimate team sport. To be successful, you absolutely cannot go out and run selfishly. They need to be accountable to each other and run like the group of brothers that they are and run for each other.”
It’s a concept championed by Mahoney’s mentor, legendary Mead coach Pat Tyson.
“I started coaching under him and he’s been a wonderful mentor,” Mahoney said. “He’s always been willing to go talk to runners and we had him come out to talk to our guys. He told them to race for each other.”
Mahoney attributes that simple approach to the team’s outstanding performance at last week’s regional tournament at Wandermere, where the Bears finished third behind Eisenhower and Wenatchee to qualify for state for the first time under Mahoney.
“On paper we’re not built like your classic cross country contender,” Mahoney said. “Your classic team has one or two runners who run at the front of the pack and generally finish in the top 10. We don’t have that. At regionals our No. 1 runner finished 15th.
“For us to compete, we have to get our top five runners all grouped within 30 seconds of each other. We’d come close to that the last few meets. I didn’t realize until I looked at the score sheet that our top five runners at regionals were 25 seconds apart.”
Getting to that kind of a finish took some hard work and a change of wardrobe.
The Bears ran well in the first meet of the season, a five-point loss at CV to rival University, but Mahoney was displeased by their performance at Mt. Spokane the following week.
“We did not run well – I don’t know what we were thinking about, but it wasn’t racing,” Mahoney said. “I’ve never raised my voice to a team before, but I told them in no uncertain terms just how displeased I was.
“I don’t think people fully realize just how tough the Greater Spokane League is in cross country. There are no gimme wins in this league. You can’t just pull up to the drive-thru window and order up a league championship. You have to work hard and you have to sacrifice to be successful. I think when I first got here, we were a little afraid of the top teams – the Ferrises and the Meads and the North Centrals – and we ran like it. We’re over that, thankfully, and our kids realize that, if they put in the hard work over the summer and follow the race plan, they can compete with the best teams in the league – and if you can run with them, you can run with anyone in the country.”
Mahoney showed his displeasure by taking away his team’s new race uniforms.
“At the beginning of the year we’d bought new Nike uniforms for them and I took them away after that race. I told them they could have them back when they earned them.”
The coach turned up the intensity of his workouts and the team began to buy into the brotherly mindset. The spacing between No. 1 runner Corey Hunter and the team’s No. 5 began narrowing, inching closer to the half-minute goal.
“We don’t spend a lot of time talking about the course or about tactics,” Mahoney said. “We didn’t talk about it at all before regionals – we went up and took a look at Wandermere, but didn’t spend much time on it because I didn’t want to put a lot of meaningless stuff in their heads. I won’t even begin to talk about the state course until Thursday and even then, I won’t give them a lot of details. It’s a golf course – that’s about all they really need to know.”
Before the regional race, the coach talked about two things.
“I wrote on each one of their fingers before the race with a Sharpie,” he said. “I wrote one word, ‘Brothers,’ on a finger.
“I told them that this race wasn’t about them. Throw all that personal stuff out. I told them to run for their brothers.”
Oh, and he gave them back their new jerseys.
The result was the team’s best race of the season.
“Corey Hunter is so close to becoming a true No. 1 runner,” Mahoney said. “He’s been running right there with the best runners in the league and he ran well at regional. He faded in the last mile, but he hung in there. Drew Brown, one of our seniors, ran his best race ever.”
Brown, who generally finishes behind sophomore Matt Hommel and junior Logan Giese, uncorked a 16:34 at regionals to finish second. Senior Isaac Seward was third at 16:43, with Giese and Hommel right behind at 16:46 and 16:49, respectively.
Mahoney expects the same kind of effort today, and he expects the team has already won where it counts.
“We’re all about building the kind of program that competes like this every year,” he said. “Last year’s team never got to run here, so we’ve already beaten what we did last year. And having run here with a team that, for the most part, will be back again next year, we’re going to be even better because they’ll have seen what it takes to get to state and to be successful at state.
“Our freshmen are loaded and our junior varsity finished second, so we have a lot of talent just waiting for the chance to run on the varsity.”
In short, Mahoney wants his boys to have the kind of success the Central Valley girls already have enjoyed.
They are running in their seventh consecutive state championship race – the longest string of state meet appearances in GSL history.