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Sunday, April 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Steve Christilaw: Cross country titles impressive

Numbers are a funny thing.

We use them to embellish, we use them for justification. Sometimes we use them for rationalization.

But they rarely tell the whole story.

Numbers can give you the mile markers and the distance. But they don’t tell you about the journey. They can tell you how high the mountain, but not how rugged the climb.

Numbers don’t express nuance.

West Valley won the state girls Class 2A cross country Saturday in Yakima.

By the numbers, it was an impressive effort on a day filled with some pretty incredible numbers.

West Valley and Bellingham finished the 3-mile race tied, each with 118 points, with Pullman just five points behind in third place.

Bellingham had three runners finish in the top 20, led by senior Annika Reiss, who finished second overall for the third time in her high school career.

The Eagles’ top finisher was junior Annika Esvelt, but she would have been the No. 4 runner if she’d worn Bellingham red at state.

But that’s just a number, not a story.

Cross country teams come in a variety of flavors. There are teams with great lead runners who score well.

But what do you do when you don’t have that great front-of-the pack runner?

The sport of cross country has a universal scoring system. If your team sweeps the top five places in a race, you score 15 points (1+2+3+4+5=15). So the concept of getting your five runners across the finish line faster than your opponent can have plenty of merit.

Esvelt led a West Valley squad that prides itself on running in a pack. Coach John Moir likes to say that, when one of his runners goes around a turn, she can look over her shoulder and see three teammates right on her heels.

On Saturday, the time gap between Esvelt crossing the finish line (in 20 minutes, 8.5 seconds) and the Eagles’ fifth runner, Sydney Stone (21:17.5), was just 69 seconds.

Pack running is not a radically new concept at West Valley. The last Eagles squad to win the state title was in 1986. Amy Duryee won the state title and teammate Tonian Kasparian placed third, and all five Eagles were among the first 21 runners to cross the finish, including Tricia Hepton, the 1985 state champion who finished 20th.

The 45 points West Valley scored that day was a state record at that time.

Saturday, North Central won the Class 3A girls title with 21 points.

There is a stronger West Valley connection here than the numbers point out.

The first West Valley girls team Hall of Fame coach Jim McLachlan guided to a state championship was in 1977, and the squad was led by the Weitz sisters, Jan and Judy.

Their brother, Lynn, had been a state 2-mile champion for the Eagles, and the Weitz family ranks as one of the most accomplished in the running-rich area.

In 1977 the state girls cross country championship was a 2-mile race while the boys covered 2.5 miles. Jan Weitz finished fifth at state in a time of 12 minutes, 41 seconds. Sister Judy, who would win the state meet a year later, was 14th in 13:00. Mary Henker, Janet Richner, Lynda Rollinger, Cyndee Chapple and Candy Chapple rounded out the squad.

Jan Weitz’s daughter, Allie Janke, led North Central’s effort this weekend and won the Class 3A race in an impressive time of 17:59.10. Her brother, Justin Janke, is a former state champion for NC, as is her cousin, Nathan Weitz, son of Lynn Weitz.

And that’s just part of the story the numbers don’t tell you about West Valley cross country.

That No. 1 WV runner? Annika Esvelt? Her dad is boys coach Mark Esvelt, who still holds the school record in the mile.

Sydney Stone has similar family running cred. The lone West Valley girl to run at state as a freshman four years ago, her father ran for the Eagles in 1989.

Her dad, Bob, would take her brother out for a training run to help him prepare for the soccer season, and she asked to tag along. There is much to say for genetics in running. Her dad likes to tell the story about how there would be guys who would hesitate to show up for optional morning runs before the start of her freshman season because they didn’t want to be shown up by a freshman-to-be girl.

That, too, is something that you can quantify with numbers in a sport that was first named “hounds and hare.”

Kids start out as teammates. But through shared passion and shared sacrifice, they become family. Whether they bond through genetics or through shared pain, they would rather run face-first into oxygen debt than let down the family.

They push through the pain, brush aside the exhaustion and dig deeper than they ever thought they could.

And there are no numbers for that.

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