The upbeat attitude of the Crater boys cross country team came in particularly handy this season.
As smoke-filled skies hampered training for the first few weeks of the season in late August and early September, teams over much of the state sought respite from air made hazardous by wildfires and ways to maintain endurance.
They ran school hallways, rode stationary bikes, worked out in pools and, when possible, bused to areas of clean air.
“These guys embrace whatever we do and make pretty much bad things out there into good things,” said Comets coach Justin Loftus.
They’re hoping for more good things at the state championship meet Saturday at Lane Community College in Eugene.
The defending Class 5A champions return four runners who were in the top 12 last year, including champion Andy Monroe and third-place Derek Tripp, both seniors.
Crater is coming off a victory in what easily is the state’s strongest district, beating runner-up Ashland by 10 points and third-place Marist by 20 in the Midwestern League championships last week in Talent.
In a hypothetical calculation on athletic.net using the season-best times for all runners, Crater dopes out as the 5A favorite again, followed by Ashland — which placed third at state last year — and Marist. Perennial power Summit, of Bend, is fourth.
Championships in all classifications will be held over the 5,000-meter course.
In the 4A boys meet, Phoenix senior Robby Vos enters with the second-best time and will look to improve on last year’s third-place finish.
In the 5A boys, Ashland’s team charge will be led by sophomore EJ Holland, fifth at state a year ago.
On the girls side, in 6A, South Medford freshman Emma Schmerbach has the 11th-best time; the Crater’s girls could challenge for a top-four 5A finish and a trophy; and St. Mary’s, led by Emma Bennion, could press for a trophy in 3A/2A/1A.
Crater’s boys are going for their seventh state championship in 12 years. They won five straight from 2006-10, then Summit took control and claimed the next five titles before the Comets retook the throne last year.
Only one other school has won as many consecutive boys crowns. South Eugene captured eight in the 1970s.
“The big thing on the guys’ side is, they want to continue the tradition of being relevant in the running world,” said Loftus. “They want to keep making memories for the team, the school and the city, and they talk about that a lot.”
He hesitates to compare his teams through the years because the dynamics of each differ greatly: ability, personalities, work ethic.
“This team has dedication and talent,” said Loftus. “We have five returners, and I think that’s definitely an advantage for us, as long as we show up and are ready to go. These guys work so well together, they seem mentally ready for this race, more so than last week.”
At the district meet, Monroe showed he’s ready for the postseason challenge by pulling away from Holland over the last half-mile to win in a season-best 15 minutes, 24.92 seconds.
Monroe suffered a partially torn plantar fascia ligament in his right foot last spring and has gradually worked his way back into championship form.
The same runners who tested him at district — in particular, Holland and Marist’s Jerik Embleton, who has the fastest time, 15:02, this season — figure to be there again.
For the team race, Tripp, Jantz Tostenson and Erik Olsen scored big points at state in 2016 and are expected to do so again.
“It could be close with Ashland, if they have a good race,” said Loftus. “They have the talent. They definitely looked good at the district meet, and Marist stepped it up quite a bit, too.”
Ashland had four in the top 10 at district, and two of them, Alex Franklin and Arlo Davis, are state returners.
Summit’s dominance took a hit when it failed to win the Intermountain Conference last week for the first time in 10 years, losing by a point to Bend.
Loftus isn’t counting the Storm out, however.
“It’s the state meet and every team steps up and prepares their kids to win the state title,” he said. “We’re all going after the same thing.”
Count Phoenix’s Vos among those with that goal.
He and Scappoose senior John Kavulich are the top returners from last year’s 4A state meet, and with Kavulich leading the way, they’ve run 1-2 this season.
Kavulich was state runner-up a year ago in 16:17, three seconds ahead of Vos.
This season, Kavulich is the only one in the classification to go under 16 minutes, and he’s done it four times, with a best of 15:41.3. Vos’ top time is 16:04.8.
Phoenix coach John Cornet expects the two to be in a sizable pack for the first two miles before breaking away.
“Robby is in the range where he can run with the top guy,” said Cornet, adding that the unforeseen often happens at state.
“One thing I’ve learned over the years about state,” he said, “is to expect the unexpected. You’ll see some kid in some race, boys or girls, any division, come out of nowhere and impress the field. And that could be happening in the top five or six.
“Robby has a strategy. He’ll go after the young man from Scappoose, but he has to be aware there might be other kids there. You just never know.”
The slow start to the season because of smoke could help foster the unexpected, said Cornet.
“You’ll probably see some real improvement (in times) at the state meet,” he said.
Schmerbach has won five of seven races this season, including the Southwest Conference meet last week, and isn’t likely to be overwhelmed on the big stage, said coach Josh Wallace.
“She’s been in two or three bigger races against the top runners in the state,” he said. “Hopefully, she’ll be the top freshman at state, and if she could be in the top 10 (overall), that would be wonderful.”
Schmerbach’s best of 17:58.3 ranks 11th in 6A and is the best among freshman.
She isn’t expected to change her style for this meet.
“She likes to be pretty aggressive, likes to be in the front pack, and she’s willing to fight through some pain to have a great race,” said Wallace.
The Crater girls, led by two-time district champion Ariana Marks, dope out as the No. 5 team. The senior Marks’ best of 19:18.3 ranks 16th.
Summit is heavily favored to win its 10th straight crown. It has four of the state’s top five runners.
St. Mary’s girls are seventh in the hypothetical picture. Bennion, a junior, ranks 11th in the state at 19:52.5.
— Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or firstname.lastname@example.org