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Watson hammers field for first cross country crown

EUGENE — Cole Watson didn't keep anyone in suspense about who the boys state champion would be in the Class 3A/2A/1A meet Saturday at Lane Community College.

The Rogue River star was so far ahead, he could have stopped and had lunch.

Conversely, St. Mary's, vying to match the record for consecutive girls 3A/2A/1A team titles, carried the drama to the bitter end. The Crusaders nudged rival Catlin Gabel, 73 points to 74, to become the sixth school to win three straight.

"For quite a long time when the race was done, I thought we were second best," said St. Mary's coach Joe Volk.

Were it not for the Crusaders, who defeated the Eagles by two points in 2007 and by 10 last year, Catlin Gabel would have six titles in a row.

St. Mary's senior Mary Bennion finished the 5,000-meter race in fourth place in 20 minutes, 15 seconds. Three other Crusaders were among the top 17 individuals, while Ashley Baldovino of Lakeview captured her third championship in four years with a time of 20:00.

The Cascade Christian boys, meanwhile, earned the school's first state trophy by placing fourth, one spot ahead of Rogue River. Hudson Eustace, a sophomore, placed 13th for the Challengers, who were fifth at state last year.

Watson, a senior who has committed to the University of Oregon, flashed his allegiance when he crossed the finish line 37 seconds ahead of runner-up Corbin Helt of Creswell.

Watson's first cross country state title — to go with his four track and field gold medals — was accomplished in 15:52, and he celebrated by holding his hands over his head in the form of an "O".

Well, sort of.

"Sorry if it looked like a different letter," he said. "I'm pretty beat. But yeah, I love this town, and I've wanted to go to UO since I was a little kid. It's just amazing it was finally able to come true."

Watson, who slipped and fell once along the way, had several motivating factors, not the least of which was a fourth-place finish last year when, he believes, he should have won.

"I just didn't have the guts to do it," he said.

Part of him also wanted to show naysayers that he's more than "just a track guy," and he hoped to put up a time that would rival any of those competing in the state's bigger classifications.

"There are several good guys in the other classes who are just as good as me or better," he said immediately after his event, the first of the day for boys. "So we'll see what happens. That'd be pretty sweet."

As it was, his time was the best of the day. The later races were run in rain and wind, unlike the ideal weather the morning brought. By the same token, Watson wasn't pushed.

He did have a goal of running 15:20, but, he admitted, "I'm not that good yet."

Drawing on a strategy Jake Keyser of Crater used triumphantly in 2006, Watson busted into the lead early and led by slightly more than a football field's length after two miles. He credited increased training over the summer, when he did as many as 60 miles a week, for improving his strength.

When he glanced back and saw how big his lead was, he took his foot off the gas.

"I felt really good," he said. "I was so comfortable. When I glanced back and saw where everyone was, I was like, 'I don't want to make myself hurt anymore.' This isn't easy, you know."

Nyssa won the 3A/2A/1A title with 49 points, while Cascade Christian scored 130 and Rogue River 139.

Eustace was timed in 17:25, and teammate Jared Nichols was 21st in 17:47.

The St. Mary's girls didn't find the going easy, either.

Volk's daughter tabulated the scores from unofficial results before they were announced. He knew his team won by the skimpiest of margins, but he didn't tell the girls.

For one, he didn't want to temper the excitement when the results were announced.

For two, what if he was wrong?

"I tried to stay stoic and wiped the tears from my eyes for a moment," he said.

With only a point separating the Crusaders and Catlin Gabel, all five scoring girls played a part. Individually, Sarah Bennion was 11th, Morgan Martin 13th, Kira Heycke 17th and Emily Reeder 67th.

Their placings for team scoring were higher because not all entrants compete with full teams.

"Realistically, if any one of the kids does anything differently, the scoring is different," said Volk. "Morgan battling back the second half of the race, Mary hanging on to beat the girls she had to, Sarah coming on strong in the final kilometer."

Heycke finished just ahead of two opposing team runners, including one from Catlin Gabel. Ditto for Reeder.

"It really is not about one person," said Volk. "The girls run for each other, and that motivated them to go that much harder and pull things out."

Martin and Bennion had the Nos. 2 and 3 times going in, and each planned to go out fast with Baldovino and separate from the pack.

Bennion fell back, but fellow senior Martin kept up the pursuit for as long as she could.

"She went so dang fast," Bennion said of Baldovino. "I was like, that's not how I run. I gotta run my race, not her race. I slowed down a little bit and kept going."

Bennion was second with 400 meters left before falling back.

"I was a little disappointed because I just didn't hold on, and that's what we were practicing," she said.

In the 4A ranks, Henley claimed the boys title behind champion Jed Tolbert, and Marist was the girls winner, with Hidden Valley third.

Hidden Valley freshman Sierra Brown placed eighth. Phoenix's top placer was Sarah Hagy in 24th.

Earl Brown of the Hidden Valley boys was seventh.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail ttrower@mailtribune.com

Rogue River's Cole Watson makes a climbing turn with a commanding lead on his way to the Class 3A/2A/1A state championship in Eugene.