EUGENE — One moment, EJ Holland had the lead. Then it was Andy Monroe. Then Holland. And Monroe.
The only question, as the drama began to crescendo in the Class 5A boys cross country championship at Lane Community College Saturday, was who would be in front when it counted, at the finish.
Monroe, the Crater senior, putting up a gallant defense of the championship he won in 2016 as he continues to rebound from a torn foot ligament, half stepped, half lunged across the line.
Holland, a gifted Ashland sophomore looking to run out of Monroe’s shadow as much as into the record book, was upright, his left leg outstretched, hitting its mark.
They had the same time, 15 minutes, 19 seconds, over 5,000 meters. If the combatants were gassed, it was for good reason. The time is the fifth-fastest, for all classifications, on the course.
Monroe won. It was by a fraction, and it was painful, both runners crashing to the ground in the finishing chute, wondering, perhaps, if their next breath would ever come.
“I’ve never been to where I had to try that hard the last bit to hang on,” said Holland, the vanquished.
“Oh my gosh,” said longtime Crater coach Justin Loftus. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
And the victor, he of the spoils?
Monroe limped badly after the race. He wasn’t supposed to return to cross country this fall after partially tearing the plantar fascia in his right foot in the spring, he said, but he insisted.
He’s had to occasionally bail out of team workouts this fall when the pain became debilitating, so it was not a new sensation that greeted him when he and Holland reached the school stadium’s track in tandem, signifying 300 meters remained.
“I had to get some toe push,” said Monroe. “That’s what really killed me is pushing off with my toes. It’s really weak right now, and it hurt really bad.”
The alternative seemed more injurious.
“But if you don’t do that,” he said, “you give it up.”
This race for the ages nudged other notable accomplishments out of the limelight.
Two other Crater runners, Derek Tripp and Jantz Tostenson, were third and fourth, respectively, helping the Comets to 32 points, their second straight state title and their seventh in a dozen years.
Tripp, a senior who also was third last year, and the junior Tostenson each ran 15:31. The Comets’ other scorers were senior Erik Olsen, 12th in 16:03, and sophomore Ryland McCullough, 17th in 16:21.
Crater didn’t have a stellar effort at the district meet a week and half earlier, but it came to run on this day, said Tripp.
“I really feel like we were a lot more mentally here and really ready to race,” he said. “That can make all the difference, just where your head’s at.”
Ashland was second with 83 points, marking its best finish since also placing second in 2009.
Senior Alex Franklin, 11th in 16:00, and sophomore Arlo Davis, 14th in 16:13, added top-20 finishes for the Grizzlies.
Monroe is the first Comet to repeat as state champion since Josh Elliott in 2009, and it capped a momentous week.
On Wednesday, he committed to run in college for Stanford, last year’s national runner-up in cross country.
Monroe and Crater will compete in a regional meet next week and hope to qualify for nationals. When the fall season is complete, he expects to take the indoor season off to heal and get ready for track.
The plantar fascia, said Monroe, has gotten stronger, but other issues have popped up in his foot.
“It’s been a rough season,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on down there.”
Tostenson admitted it’s been “scary” for the Comets when Monroe has pulled up in workouts. They’d finish, then rush back to check on their hobbled mate.
“He’s the strongest kid I know, mentally,” said Tostenson.
That fortitude came in handy against Holland, who placed second in the Midwestern League championships only after Monroe pulled away over the final half-mile for a convincing win.
On Saturday, Monroe and Holland duked it out over the last mile.
“He and I were going back and forth, trying to put surges in, trying to break the other person,” said Holland.
It was Holland who set a brisk pace, particularly in the second mile, in hopes of taking the kick out of any would-be challengers down the stretch.
They did the first mile in 4:50, and the split after two miles was 9:52.
“EJ really set the tone,” said Loftus. “He’s a competitor.”
Monroe wasn’t just along for the ride.
“My cardio is just not that good right now,” he said, “so I knew, aerobically, I wasn’t going to be able to break him today.”
Each answered the other’s surges. When they got to the track, they’d been by themselves for a while.
Holland immediately moved to the front by a step. Monroe immediately responded.
“The most important thing is to just cover the move,” said Monroe, who now has five state titles in cross country and track. “If you let them get just a little separation, the race is over. The momentum is really the biggest thing. You have to just close your eyes and do something to cover each move. Otherwise, you’re going to lose touch.”
Monroe held Holland at bay around the track, but not by much.
As they finished the final 100 meters, they bumped each other slightly while flailing to the finish.
“It was a great race, probably one of the most fun races I’ve ever done,” said Holland. “I tried to stick it out all the way to the end. It was close.”
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or email@example.com