PASCO, Wash. — Walk into the gym at Tri-Cities Prep, and among the first things you notice are the four state championship banners hanging on the wall.
Not bad for a 10-year-old school.
Look a little closer, and two of those are boys cross country crowns.
Pretty good for a program that started seven years ago.
We all step up, said Prep senior captain Skyler Larson, who on Saturday will step to the starting line at Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco for the fourth time at the state meet.
The two-time defending 2B/1B state champion Jaguars are favorites to add a banner for a third consecutive title to that gym wall.
When Larson said all, he wasnt just referring to the seven varsity runners Prep will have in its lineup himself, fellow seniors Will Bryan, Sam Leon and John Hylden, juniors Kelly Smith and Joseph Ghirardo, and sophomore Jorge Guajardo. He wasnt even referring to the 30 boys and 12 girls who make up the Jaguars cross country program that from a school of about 160 students.
It might be the boys state championship, but it will be Tri-Cities Preps state championship, Larson said.
Cross country runners are accustomed to going a long way, but the Prep program has gone far even for a distance program.
Started in 2006 by Matt Kerr, it went from three or four intrepid souls to about a quarter of the school. The Jaguars qualified boys teams for state from 2007-09 but missed on bringing home any hardware.
In 2010, when Kerr moved to Pasco High to rebuild the Bulldogs program, Scott Larson came on and hit it big right off a state title delivered by the Nicks (Lumetta, Tudor and Fong) plus a trio of sophomores in Skyler Larson, Leon and Hylden.
I never thought we would be a state champion team, not then, Hylden said. We really didnt know what we were capable of that first year we took state.
The repeat was a surprise to no one, with the bulk of the previous championship team coming back and winning by 33 points, almost double the 2010 margin. Along the way, the girls team qualified for state and finished fifth. Victoria Nuñez placed 16th, and shes headed back to state solo as a junior.
But after losing three of their top four runners to graduation, the 2012 Jaguars boys were a bit of a mystery.
They also were a team that had an opportunity to change the profile of TC Prep cross country from that of a team of good runners that won a couple state titles, to one of a good program that cycles through runners and keeps churning out champions.
This is different than other years, Skyler Larson said. We wanted to show that we have the depth to do it.
There have been several keys this season. The first has been the leadership of the four seniors and the combined six state races they have between them. Larson, who sixth at state last year, figures to contend for top three.
The second is Leon getting back to form after his junior season was derailed by shin splints. He was plenty motivated for a big comeback, saying, If they can win by 30 points last year without me, what if I am actually going every day hard.
The third is the development of Smith, Ghirardo and Guajardo Guajardo especially, as the sophomore didnt expect to be part of the varsity seven.
Im blessed to be a part of this team, he said.
Ghirardo said the friendly rivalry among teammates promotes competition.
We all work off each other, he said. Its good competition, and we push everybody.
Smith said he learned a valuable lesson last season when, as the yearlong No. 7 (nonscoring) runner, he was Preps fifth and final scorer at state.
Coach expects everyone to put their best effort out there every race, he said. Especially this year, our placement (2-7) has shifted each race.
Scott Larson, Skylers dad, gets a lot of credit from the guys, not just for technical instruction but for creating a atmosphere that makes even the grueling practice of pounding out daily miles something they enjoy.
Coach is part of the team, Bryan said. He hits the same runs as us. Hes not just saying go run 5 miles. Thats not how he rolls.
Speaking of rolls, Prep is on a big one, coming off a district victory over Northwest Christian of Colbert, which had been ranked No. 1 all season.
Scott Larson knows all the preparation is taken care of, and now its out of his hands and on his kids shoulders.
My runners, he said, are ready.