High School Sports

Kamiakin girls have made steep climb

It happened fast, seemingly overnight, this elevation of the Kamiakin girls cross country team.

When the massive field of state cross country runners takes over Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco on Saturday morning and afternoon, the Braves will be one of those select teams with an honest chance not just at state hardware, but the big trophy.

Ranked third in the 3A state poll -- like their male counterparts -- Kamiakin went down to a six-runner tiebreaker with defending state champion Shadle Park before finishing runner-up at last weekend's Eastern Washington regionals.

The Braves have been ranked as high as second this season after starting the fall No. 3 in the preseason rankings.

And while it was no surprise that the Kamiakin boys also opened at No. 3 -- they took a team to state last year and have two of the better runners in the state, including title contender Anthony Armstrong -- the girls' ranking was a head-scratcher to some.

After all, wasn't this the same team -- albeit a year removed -- that placed fourth at district and sixth at regionals the previous year? Whose top two runners grabbed two of the last three state berths at regionals?

Even with most everyone back, that's a considerable leap.

So what gives?

"We followed the success they had on the track, and it wasn't hard to put together," said veteran Eisenhower coach Phil English, who cobbles together the preseason poll. "Their track times improved significantly and we knew about their young kids coming in. It was really evident from their track performances they were going to be a team to be reckoned with.

"It wasn't any great Ouija board experience."

Indeed, four of the Braves' top five runners -- juniors Stephanie Rexus and Sydney Blaser, sophomore Michelle Fletcher and senior Kaylee Brooks -- competed in events ranging from the 400 meters to the 3,200, and all four qualified for regionals last spring.

"They had a great track season last year," said Kamiakin girls coach Shaun Suss, noting that they also poured themselves into the summer workouts. "They run together and work off each other really well."

With that ranking has come higher expectations as well as increased attention.

"We've set high expectations now," Blaser said. "People know who we are, and that makes us want to work harder."

"Last year our goal was to make it to state," Rexus said. "Now the goal is to do well at state."

"To be on the podium," Fletcher added.

"It's a little exciting and a little scary," Brooks said. "People are after us."

Brooks, a senior, and her freshman sister Brittany are two big additions from last season. After running as a freshman and sophomore, Kaylee took last fall off to try her hand at marathons but missed being part of the team.

Brittany is the fourth standout freshman the Braves have had in the last three seasons. Rexus and Blaser were top rookies in 2008 -- Rexus the team's No. 1 runner -- and Fletcher had instant success last season.

It's that evolution of talent that has raised the prospects not just of the team, but all of the runners individually as well.

"They struck fear into us," Savanna Davies remembered of Rexus and Blaser coming onto the scene so fast.

Davies, the only four-year senior on the team, remembers her freshman season when the practice runs were a bit lackadaisical and state dreams were just that.

While the Braves were a competitive program within the district, they hadn't been to state since 2003, which resulted with the team's only state trophy for third place.

But with a couple of freshmen putting out big-time effort, the rest of the team wasn't about to look bad.

"We all started competing with each other," Davies said.

That trend continues to this day. While Kamiakin's scoring five has been consistent throughout, four different runners have filled out the varsity seven -- Davies, sophomore twins Samantha and Sarah Meadows and freshman Jori Perrins.

The result is that Kamiakin already has picked up several trophies this season, including wins at the Richland Invite and districts to go with an unbeaten league season.

It's given the Braves a hunger for more, as well as unseating the 2003 team as the program's best.

"We're the new mark," Davies said. "Instead of saying they want to beat the '03 team, they'll want to beat the 2010 team."