At the end of the past school year Mike Barbaro made an honest assessment of his University High School boys cross country team.
The Titans placed second, behind North Central, at the state Class 3A meet in 2010, but five members of that team graduated in June. The 2011 varsity team would be young and inexperienced. The Titans would be good, sure. But too often, good isn’t good enough to get you out of the Greater Spokane League and on to state.
“The GSL is tough,” Barbaro said. “Look at the state rankings – there are six GSL teams ranked in the top 10 in both (class) 4A and 3A.”
Four of the top 15 individual runners in the state’s two top classifications are from the GSL, including top-ranked Nathan Weitz of Shadle Park. North Central is not only ranked No. 1 in the state but also in the Pacific Northwest; it is No. 14 nationally.
Barbaro’s initial estimation was based on what University would not have in 2011. The top three runners graduated.
“Five guys, that’s a lot for a team to lose – and we lost more than that,” he said. “We lost 60 percent of last year’s varsity.
“Looking at the guys we have coming back, I figured we had the talent to be a middle-of-the-pack team this year. But then I saw the work these guys put in over the summer and we had to take another look.”
And, he added, he saw the character of his young runners and the leadership qualities of the seniors.
“When you experience what it means to run at state, it makes you want to do everything you can to get back,” he said. “That means a lot to a program. It makes you want to get back and experience it again.”
Seniors Jake Hombel and Matthew Fry were part of last year’s runner-up team. Ending their high school careers with another state trophy is their No. 1 goal.
“Running at state was an incredible feeling,” Hombel said. “We want to get there again.”
“All we could think about was getting back to state and bringing home another trophy,” Fry agreed.
The pair set out to make that happen over the summer. They took charge of the summer running program, rounding up their teammates for regular workouts.
“We got in a lot of mileage,” Hombel said. “But we made sure we all had a good summer. We had a lot of fun together this summer.”
Barbaro was impressed both by how hard his team worked and with the improvement that brought about. By the time the group had its first official workout of the 2011-’12 season, it already had become a team.
Running side by side, Hombel and Fry finished within a second of each other at state a year ago. Hombel ran 16:26.2 to place 32nd overall; Fry clocked in a 16:27 for 34th.
The pair picked up where they let off a year ago, leading the Titans to a season-opening win at Central Valley Wednesday.
Running on a flat, grassy course, the Titans took control midway through the race.
Hombel pulled away in the stretch to clock a 16:15.2 to win the race. Fry turned in a 16:21.9 for second place.
“We had a pretty good race, but there are some things we need to work on,” Barbaro said. “Our fifth-place guy today is usually our No. 3 guy. He had an off day. I’m not going to change anything, though. We knew CV was going to be a tough race. They’re all going to be tough races.”
The CV course was fast, he said, but it had its own challenges.
“The grass was spongy because it’s been watered,” he explained. “That makes you sink in while you’re running. It’s a lot like running on a sandy beach. That kind of sucks the energy out of your legs.”
The Titans stayed relatively healthy a year ago and Barbaro said he plans to monitor his team’s health all season.
“That’s key,” he said. “You have to rely on runners to tell you when they’re not feeling well and when they’re hurt. We worked hard on that last year and even harder on that this year. I want to know how my guys feel every day. I want to know if anything hurts. If their hand hurts, I want to know about it.
“We’ve had some injuries – you can’t ever get away from that. But if you have good communication, you can minimize some of them.”