Hanford High School girls cross country coach Sean Mars was pleased by the initiative his runners took to improve over the summer.
“They were getting the work in on their own; that’s a really good sign,” Mars said. “They were getting out the door themselves and running together.”
The Falcons hope all those miles will add up to a state berth.
The Class 4A regional meet is Saturday at Carmichael Middle School in Richland. The top two teams, plus individuals finishing in the top 14, will advance to the Nov. 5 state championships at Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco.
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Hanford enters regionals with a No. 7 state ranking and a long list of accomplishments this season.
The Falcons won team titles at the Seaport Invite on Sept. 17 in Clarkston and the Wenatchee Invite on Oct. 1. They finished second to Lewis & Clark in the Division I race at the Max Jensen Richland Invitational on Oct. 8 at Carmichael, and then won the Mid-Columbia Conference regular-season and Class 4A district titles.
The league title was Hanford’s first since 1992, when the Falcons were in the Mid-Valley League. Their last district title came in 2008, when they competed in the Columbia Basin Big Nine.
“We have a really strong culture, and we’re all really supportive of each other,” senior Rachel Schmidt said. “After races and workouts, we’ll all go around and point out things that other people did well.”
The Falcons were second at last year’s 3A regionals at Wandermere Golf Course in Spokane, finishing four points behind Kamiakin, and went on to place 10th at state.
“We weren’t supposed to make it to state, but they were like, ‘We’re gonna do it for each other,’ and shocked everybody,” Mars said of Hanford’s 2015 regional performance. “We beat Mt. Spokane by one point. They’re gonna give it everything they have. We’ll see if that’s enough.”
The Falcons aren’t fazed by the competition they will face at the 4A regionals, including second-ranked Lewis & Clark, No. 8 Central Valley and No. 9 Mead of the Greater Spokane League.
Hanford’s regional representatives — seniors Hailey Cleavenger and Schmidt, juniors Amber Skouson and Kristin Pilgrim, sophomores Grace Arnold, Kat Bushman and Megan Wright, and freshmen Kendra Keller and Aayiana Fuller — have been training for just this moment.
“It’s gonna be a challenge, but I know it’s doable,” said Cleavenger, who ran at state with Schmidt when they were freshmen in 2013. “If we all work our hardest and have the best race that we can with whatever situation we’re up against, I think we can do it. I think we can qualify for state as a team.”
The first MCC meet of the season in Walla Walla showed the Falcons that they were capable of having a special year. Cleavenger, Arnold and Bushman finished in the top five, Skouson was eighth and Wright 15th, leading Hanford to a 29-point win over Kamiakin.
“Things can always go sideways late in the race, but they really stepped up,” Mars said.
Running in a pack and finishing strong has been the Falcons’ m.o. this fall. All nine Hanford runners placed in the top 14 at last week’s MCC 4A district meet at Leslie Groves Park in Richland.
“It’s definitely been moreso like that this year, especially towards the end of this season,” Cleavenger said. “Everyone’s just improved so much, and we all know that we can run with each other, and we all know that we are strong, and we just build off each other during races.”
When Arnold joined the program, she said, she realized right away how important the Falcons’ bond was on and off the course.
“Even when Hailey and Rachel were juniors, they were just so nice, and everyone was so welcoming, and it really made me feel like it was something I wanted to do,” Arnold said. “They’re really motivating, and everyone cheers on everyone, no matter what speed or what age. It’s a really cool dynamic.”
MCC/GSL 4A REGIONAL
Where: Carmichael Middle School, Richland (3-mile course)
Saturday’s schedule: Girls race, 1 p.m.; boys race, 1:30 p.m.; alternates race, 2 p.m.
Teams: Central Valley, Chiawana, Ferris, Gonzaga Prep, Hanford, Lewis & Clark, Mead, Pasco, Richland, University, Walla Walla