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Blanchette: GU track lifts off with Thomas

Gonzaga distance runner Emily Thomas is on to the Western Regionals. (Dan Pelle)
Gonzaga distance runner Emily Thomas is on to the Western Regionals. (Dan Pelle)

Emily Thomas didn’t have the usual things that get a high school runner recruited to a college program – like fast times, medals and pedigree.

So what did she have?

A softball bat. Oh, and something else.

“She’s brave,” said her coach, Pat Tyson.

Bravery explores a new world today when Thomas toes the line for the 10,000 meters at the west preliminaries of the NCAA track and field championship in Austin, Texas: She’s the first to wear a Gonzaga University jersey at an NCAA track event.

At the moment, this doesn’t suggest a major breakout on Spokane’s running timeline – a busy trail where eras were defined by Lindgren and Kardong and Jones, where Bloomsday became the civic identity, where Prefontaine and Rono blazed across Hangman’s fairways and where high school champions from Knott to Knight have emerged nearly every year.

But check back in a few. That may need updating.

It’s been four years since Tyson, the snake charmer who established a dynasty at Mead, signed on to play his horn at Gonzaga and see if similar results were possible. There have been both triumphs and some treading of water, but more on the big picture later.

For the moment, let’s check in on Thomas, for all she represents about the Tyson mission.

She was part of his first recruiting class, at a time when “maybe performance wasn’t as important as a certain moxie or look,” he said.

A lot had to be left to the imagination. Thomas had never raced on the track, since that sort of thing took place during softball season.

“Softball was my biggest passion,” she admitted, “but running was the sport in which I felt I had the most left to give.”

She had run some cross country, but broke a bone in her foot overtraining as a senior at Camas High School and missed the state meet. So she assumed her running career was over and was “surprised when Tyson called me up.”

She was also a little surprised when the team gathered for camp and discovered that “it felt like a high school team.”

“That seemed like the mindset of some of the upperclassmen,” she said. “We had a lot of kids running for fun. I’m of a mind that if you’re going to participate in a Division I program, it needs to be a Division I program.”

She’s done her part.

A back injury wiped out her freshman year, but by the time the 2011 track season was over she owned school records at 5,000 and 10,000 meters. This spring, no one’s run faster at those two distances in the Inland Northwest.

That would be a great gauge of how far Gonzaga’s distance program has come – if Tyson’s gaze wasn’t fixed on how far the Bulldogs have to go.

“But when I was at Mead, I need a Chris Lewis to come along to make things believable,” he said. “At Gonzaga, Emily’s making us believable.”

It’s not just her. Every women’s school record from 800 up fell this year, and three more on the men’s side. Yes, the old ones may have been a little soft, but they’re also gone. In Tyson’s first three years, he had no man who could break 15 minutes for 5K; now there are a dozen.

There was even that eye-popping headline of Gonzaga beating mighty Oregon in a cross country dual last fall.

Yes, the Ducks left their aces home; fact is, the Zags held a few back, too.

Along the way, Tyson has been able to add an important assistant in Patty Ley and begin to send his athletes off to chase NCAA qualifying times in better meets. Sixty runners are in the program and they’re getting better – Gonzaga Prep standout Conor McCandless, a 4:12 miler, is headed down the street next fall.

The treading water? The program still runs on just two scholarships, and Tyson’s vision of a Villanova-style program of 800-1,500 specialists will have to be reached without a track on campus.

“People ask me, ‘Do you love what you’re doing?’” Tyson said. “No, I like what I’m doing. Love comes when you’re in a position of always being in the hunt to win conference championships, and you’re a team that’s top 10 every year in your region.”

So that love is something he’s still racing after. Emily Thomas wouldn’t mind doing some chasing herself.

“As long as I’m running as well as I can, I think it would be fantastic if there are six kids in front of me who are better,” she said. “This is not about being the fastest kid on the team. It’s about having the best program possible.”

A pretty brave attitude, all right.

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