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Once the hunted, Hudson Eustace is now the hunter, and it's a position the Cascade Christian cross country champion relishes as he approaches the state meet Saturday in Eugene.
A year ago, Eustace entered the Class 3A/2A/1A meet at Lane Community College as the favorite based on his state-leading time of 16 minutes, 10 seconds for 5,000 meters.
He established the time early in the season, wore a target on his back for weeks and, when state rolled around, ended up finishing third.
"If I learned anything at all from the state meet last year," says Eustace, a senior and three-time district champion, "it's that times are irrelevant when it comes down to the actual race. It just comes down to who wants it the most and who runs the best on that particular day. Last year, I was a little nervous and a little excited. But I suppose, if given the option, I'd prefer to be behind by a couple seconds than ahead because it's easier to prepare mentally."
The target this year has transferred to Nick Obletz of Oregon Episcopal. The junior Obletz put up a time of 15:47.3 in mid-September and remains the best in the division by six seconds.
Eustace, who was idle for a couple weeks with a quadricep strain, has a top time of 16:04 and ranks fourth in 3A/2A/1A. He's been within a second of that time in three straight meets.
"He's done the same exact thing," Eustace says, comparing Obletz's season to his of last year. "He posted a time early in the season that hasn't really been improved upon. I understand what that's like and I feel for him. It's an interesting place to be."
The 3A/2A/1A girls and boys races will be the first of eight run on the Lane CC course and appear to represent the best opportunities for individual titles by local runners.
In the girls meet, Sarah Bennion of St. Mary's has the second-best time, nine seconds behind leader Olivia Powell of Creswell.
Neither the Cascade Christian boys, who claimed their fourth straight district title last week, or the Challenger or St. Mary's girls are expected to contend for team titles. But a top-four finish, for which trophies are awarded, is possible.
Eustace had hoped to record a time in the 15:40s this season. His progress was slowed by the strain in his thigh.
He couldn't practice for two weeks and only felt like he was out of the woods a week before the District 6 meet, which he won with a time of 16:04.6.
"I've been fortunate enough that I've never been injured," says Eustace. "I didn't quite know how to handle it when it happened. It probably affected me more mentally than physically. But coming off a good race at district, I'm hoping to carry that into state. I'm hoping it won't affect me at all."
Coach Steve Williston thinks the down time might have kept Eustace fresh for a big push this weekend.
"Sometimes guys come back and have a lot more giddyup in their step," says Williston. "God provided that rest so he could perform better. The fact he was injured and couldn't compete or train at the level he wanted to could do him some good."
It also could help that Eustace has a history of success against many of his rivals, having captured the state championship in the 3,000 meters in track last spring and having had mixed results this fall in various meets.
There are a handful of entrants who could emerge victorious, says Eustace.
The 2010 winner, Lucien Corriveau of Chemawa, graduated, but runner-up Ryan Maag of Nyssa returns. The senior is ranked fifth, four seconds behind Eustace. Two Central Linn seniors, Joseph Ewers and Zachary Holloway, are Nos. 2 and 3 in the state.
Eustace is familiar with all of them, says Williston.
"And, you know, Hudson's tough," says the coach. "I think he has a very good shot to win if he runs smart. And he's a very smart runner. He doesn't do anything foolish. It's going to be fun to watch."
The state course has two loops, the first one larger than the second. Eustace, who was 13th at state as a sophomore, believes the 3.1-mile race will take shape after about two miles.
"Everyone will be able to figure out then who's there to win and who's not," he says.
Eustace prefers to run at a steady pace, rather than start fast, throw in surges during the race or dash madly to the finish.
And he'd prefer to have his position decided a half-mile or so from the end. The final 300 meters are around the Lane CC track.
Eustace considers himself to be better in track than cross country, but he's not a sprinter.
"I feel confident that I can have a solid finish on the track," he says, "but I'm not a 400-meter runner."
He will have mapped out his strategy before getting in the van to head north today. But all the "reviewing, scheming and strategizing," as he puts it, can be rendered moot at any point in the race, depending on what others are doing.
How one adapts to variables in a given race determines success or failure.
"That's the essence of the sport right there," says Eustace.
Eustace's time at state last year was 16:32. He isn't likely to reach his season goal of the 15:40s this weekend — only three runners did so in 2010, and they were the top 6A finishers.
He'll likely have chances to try again in a couple post-state races, Border Clash and the Footlocker regional.
How he finishes the cross country season and his performance in track this spring will have a bearing on his collegiate options. He's received heightened interest from Texas A&M, to which he's made an unofficial visit, and from Boise State. He's also interested in being part of a strong Marine ROTC program.
But first things first.
Of the state meet, he says, "This being my senior year, I'm probably more motivated. In my junior year and sophomore year, I always had another year to look forward to. I don't now, so I'd like to go in and have the race of my life."
Before the boys take the course, the small-school girls will have at it.
Bennion, who plays soccer as well as runs cross country, helped St. Mary's win a state title two years ago but didn't run last season.
Her best time this year is 19:16. She captured the District 6 title in 19:45.4, pacing herself throughout until summoning a late-race surge to overtake Cascade Christian's Stephanie Croy.
Croy was second in 19:54. The sophomore has a season's best of 19:47, ranking her eighth in 3A/2A/1A. Teammate Taylor Williams is 10th at 20:11.5.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email email@example.com