Kamiakin cross country program comes long way

December 4, 2012 

Seven.

The number holds significant meaning to Kamiakin cross country, and it has nothing to do with luck.

Actually, before last weekend, it was a number associated with heartbreak and close calls.

Seven points is how close the Kamiakin boys came in 2006 to snapping a 16-year drought in team berths to state. And "seven points" was the motivation during summer workouts for the five returning seniors from that team.

Now, the number seven has new meaning for the Braves, one shiny and golden, representing the realization of hard work and dreams.

Finishing seventh in the nation has that kind of power.

"Utter and complete happiness," senior Christian Rodriguez said Tuesday, given a few days to reflect on Kamiakin's performance at Nike Cross Nationals on Sunday at Portland Meadows.

"We were all pretty pumped," added fellow senior Austin Oser. "But seeing coach's reaction, it was great. He just had the biggest smile on his face.

"That was great."

Coach is Matt Rexus, the varsity cross country coach at Kamiakin for more than a quarter century who just happened to be on hand Sunday -- the Nike event is not sanctioned by any of the high school organizations, so high school coaches are not allowed to "coach" at the event.

Indeed, in technical terms, Kamiakin did not finish seventh in the nation, the West Kennewick running club did. Just so happens the seven guys on that team -- Oser, Rodriguez, Ahmed Ibrahim, Garrett Kraal, Cameron Glade, Andrew Snyder and Daniel Sanchez -- all ran for the Braves.

Simple coincidence, that's all.

"This is crazy -- it's this group," Rexus said. "I'm so proud of those boys, fighting for each other. It's such a team effort."

It was Rexus who had to console his runners in 2006 and again in 2007, when cruelly they finished two points behind Southridge for a state berth.

It wasn't until 2009 when the Braves finally made state, nearly two decades after their last berth in 1990. In both '09 and '10, they sent teams to state they hoped would bring home a top-four trophy, only to come up short (fifth place in 2010).

Justin Yoke, who felt the crushing disappointment in 2007 and the relief in 2009, was thrilled to see Oser and Rodriguez, freshmen he helped lead into the program, finish their senior seasons on such a high note.

"It was pretty awesome to see they made it all the way and got seventh at nationals," he said. "It's definitely awesome to see Rexus be so successful after we left. He deserves it."

Yoke and Evan Fiske were key runners on that team that broke through to state, as was Derek Scott on the 2006-07 teams.

Last season, the Braves finally broke through on the state podium, not only getting that team trophy with third-place showing, but finishing one point out of second and also getting the individual title when Anthony Armstrong won the race.

It seemed like a high point for the program that teams would be aiming at for years to come.

Turns out, it took just one season to better. Kamiakin placed second at state with a performance that would have beaten any other team except Spokane rival North Central, which placed third at nationals. The Braves also finished second at Northwest regional to earn their first national berth.

All that despite losing one of its best runners, junior Keegan McCormick, to appendicitis just before the postseason.

"It's a dream come true to watch all these events take place," Garrett Kraal said. "All the long, hard work, the summer training, all the hard work and stress, it finally paid off."

And the Braves showed they belonged with the best teams in the nation.

"There's 55,000 schools in the nation," Rodriguez pointed out. "So being in the top seven of that amount is pretty good."

Cross country being cross country, the guys were not sure if anyone would even know about their achievement when they went back to school Monday.

"I was expecting no reaction," said Oser, understanding that distance running is not exactly a national pastime. "But everyone said, 'nice job,' and in my first class, my teacher had 'Congrats 33rd place at nationals, seventh as team' on the board."

As they are being recognized by their classmates, the Braves also recognize those guys who came before and set the stage for their recent accomplishments.

"Justin Yoke, Evan Fiske ... they talk about how it's improved so much, and that's kind of cool," Rodriguez said. "They were like the beginning of this legacy we're leaving behind."

Garrett Kraal remembers growing up and being inspired watching his older brother Taylor, who graduated last year, run for the Braves.

"I remember one day when I came to a meet, it was the coolest thing ever," he said. "All the big dogs who would go to state, it inspires you. I set a goal to be one of them. It's a dream, and everyone on the team is living it."

Sounds like heaven.

Seventh heaven.

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