High School Sports

Oh, so close for Kamiakin cross country

WENATCHEE -- For a golden moment they thought they were champs, and then a shadow of disappointment slipped in as the Kamiakin girls went from regional cross country titlists to runners-up by the narrowest of margins.

Oh how their fortunes -- and expectations -- have changed in one short season.

The Braves finished second to defending regional and state champion Shadle Park on a tiebreaker at the Eastern Washington 3A regional race on a soggy Saturday afternoon at Walla Walla Point Park.

Initially, Kamiakin seemed to have unseated the Highlanders by a single point. But when event organizers realized a slight scoring snafu, the two teams slid into a tie, and Shadle seized the team title based on the finish of the first nonscoring runner.

"We knew it was going to be really close between the two of us," said Kamiakin sophomore Michelle Fletcher, whose sixth-place finish was one spot behind junior teammate Stephanie Rexus. "We thought we had a good chance to stay with them."

Still, it was a big day for the Mid-Columbia, and Kamiakin in particular.

After the girls earned one of the three team berths to next weekend's state meet at Pasco's Sun Willows Golf Course, the Kamiakin boys followed up by placing third in their race behind seven-time defending regional champion North Central (the four-time defending state champs) and University.

Junior Anthony Armstrong became the Braves' first individual regional champion, winning in 14 minutes, 47.20 seconds in the day's thriller. Armstrong edged Shadle's Nathan Weitz by 0.39 seconds -- about a step.

The pair were neck-and-neck and in a dead sprint along with North Central's Vince Hamilton when they rounded the final turn and headed up the 200-yard straightaway to an uphill finish.

"At that point I knew they were straining and I knew I had to go," said Armstrong, whose sixth win of the year came amid some slippery footing.

"That turn heading into the last 800, we were almost walking."

Teammate Austin Richards finished seventh after bolting out to an early lead. Hanford's Erin Braich was the day's biggest surprise, placing 15th -- the cutoff for an individual berth -- after finishing 13th a week earlier at districts.

Braich, a junior in his first year of cross country who prefers golf and baseball to cross country, said he only turned out for the team because of some serious bribing.

"My dad told me if I turned out for cross country, we would go play Bandon Dunes," he said.

And now he's headed to state.

Likewise for Walla Walla's Aaron Nelson, a senior who needed no more enticement than another shot at state.

Nelson matched strides with Mead's Andrew Gardner, a favorite to win state, and Lewis & Clark's Kenji Bierig, finishing third within 41/2 seconds of Gardner's winning time of 14:43.77.

"I feel good -- I can do that pace pretty easily," said Nelson, adding that his goals haven't changed since the beginning of the season: "I plan on winning state and breaking the course record."

Nelson's sophomore sister, Rachel, was one of several runners throughout the day who took a spill on the slippery grass. So did Richland's Maggie Jones going around a corner about a mile into the 3-mile race. The runners were still bunched up, and teammate Katie Mahoney had to hurdle her to keep her feet.

"I did a face-plant on the ground," said Jones, who rallied to finish fourth, a little more than 10 seconds behind the 17:51.23 posted by defending champ Baylee Mires of Mead.

Mahoney was sixth and Nelson seventh. However, the Bombers finished sixth in the team standings, ending a run of five straight state berths. Eisenhower swept the 4A boys and girls team championships, ending a run of five straight 4A titles for Spokane boys squads.

The Kamiakin girls were hoping to win their first regional title since 2003, which is quite a leap from last season, when Fletcher and Rexus finished 18th and 20th to earn two of the final three individual berths to state, and the Braves weren't in the team discussion.

"Last year, that was right to the end and I felt so stressed -- it was really close," Fletcher said. "But this year there's a little less pressure because our team's so good."

Evidenced by the fact that four Kamiakin girls would have qualified for state individually: Rexus, Fletcher, Kaylee Brooks in ninth and Sydney Blaser in 14th, with the final scoring runner, freshman Brittany Brooks, in 16th.

Hanford senior Erin Hegarty repeated her fourth-place finish behind defending champion Katie Knight of North Central, who easily ran the day's top time for girls with a 17:19.35 -- nearly 20 seconds better than anyone else.

Southridge advanced a pair of runners: junior Rachel Dahl (eighth) and senior Emily Butler (15th). Fellow senior Robyn Feil finished 18th to help the Suns finish fourth.