Whatever you want to call it, the sport of cross country running demands pace, rhythm or timing – some even refer to it as dancing to the beat of a different drummer.
For some, it’s about the unrelenting, unstoppable tick-tick-tick of the clock. It’s an unflinching yardstick that measures all who toe the start line, that stands at the finish line like a constant guard, measuring all by the same standard.
To others, it’s the pounding of footfalls as athletes race that clock, stride by stride and step by step. Or the pounding of a heart that pushes a runner when everything else in the body cries out to stop, or at least slow down.
It’s the latter that is the true essence of the sport, for it’s the heart that, in the end, measures the runner. It’s what gets them out of bed to put in mile after training mile, to prepare for the start of fall practice. It’s the heart that pushes a runner through those tough first miles and then pushes harder near the end, pumping just that much harder to fuel the all-out kick to the finish line.
In the Greater Spokane League, it takes an extra measure of heart to compete. The GSL, both Class 4A and 3A, demands excellence. The difference between teams can be measured in just a few heartbeats, a few seconds, a few strides.
Both Central Valley schools, CV and University, are among the best boys cross country teams in the state.
At CV, coach Kieran Mahoney returns a squad that placed fifth at last year’s state Class 4A meet, led by junior Corey Hunter, who placed 26th with a time of 16 minutes, 6.1 seconds. Senior Logan Giese was right on his heels at state, finishing at 16:09.6. Junior Matt Hommel (16:36.4) and senior Jonah Spencer (17:00.5) also return from last year’s state team.
“I’m probably only going to have two seniors on my varsity,” Mahoney said. “I’ve got a group of about seven guys competing for the last three spots on varsity who are all within a couple seconds of each other, so that will change some. That’s what you want to see, though.”
The Bears begin the season running in the Tracy Walters Invitational meet at Audubon Park ranked No. 3 in the state.
“I would rather have us ranked dead last, to be honest,” Mahoney said. “We have a target on our back, to be sure. It’s going to be good for us to race against some of the best teams in the Northwest. It will give us a very good idea of where we are right now.”
The improvement Mahoney wants to see this season comes down to just a few seconds for each runner.
“If each of our guys runs 15 seconds faster than they did last year, we’re on the platform at state getting a trophy,” he said. “That comes down to just five seconds per mile. We had (Gonzaga University and former Mead coach) Pat Tyson out to talk to our guys. They knew his history – his great teams at Mead and running with Steve Prefontaine at Oregon, all of that. He started snapping his fingers, once a second. I think that brought it home to all of our guys, just what we’ve been talking about.”
At University, coach Mike Barbero, too, has a veteran squad, led by seniors Daniel Brunner, Austin Sloan and Nate Collins, with juniors Taylor Smith and Kyle Bender, and sophomore Patrick Miranne all back from successful 2011 seasons.
The difference for the Titans is stark, however. Last year the Titans missed out on one of the two GSL berths into the regional meet by just six points, behind perennial powers North Central and Mt. Spokane. With points calculated by finish position, it doesn’t take advanced math skills to see where a small improvement could mean the difference between advancing and staying home as a team.
In the end, five University runners advanced to compete as individuals.
This year’s state Class 3A preseason poll by the Washington State Cross Country Coaches Association lists NC at No. 1, followed by Seattle Prep, Kamiakin, and Mt. Spokane, with the Titans ranked No. 6 – one spot higher than they were ranked in the final poll of last season.
But only three teams advance from the Eastern Regional to run at the state meet. Of the five teams ahead of the Titans, three teams from their region are ranked ahead of them: NC, Kamiakin and Mt. Spokane.
For the Titans, too, the challenge is to shave a precious few seconds off each runner’s personal best times, and shaving a precious few places between runners at the finish.
“I think if people just look at what we did last year, they’re going to be surprised,” Barbero said. “We had a phenomenal summer and these guys have worked hard and really improved. We learned a hard lesson last year and I’m excited for this year.”