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Top-ranked Crater teams chase crowns

Most schools would be happy with one cross country state championship.

Crater wants two.

The Comets are ranked No. 1 among Class 5A schools in both the boys and girls divisions and will try to validate the polls at the state meet Saturday at Lane Community College in Eugene.

Championships for all classifications are run on the same day at the same site. The meet begins with the Class 3A/2A/1A girls at 10 a.m. The Class 5A Comets send their girls off at 1:15 p.m. and the boys at 1:50.

Crater will attempt to become only the second Southern Oregon school to claim boys and girls titles in the same year. Rogue River did it in 1991.

The Comet boys are ranked fifth nationally and will set out to defend the state title they won in 2006.

They are coming off a triumphant, albeit less dominating than expected, performance at the Southern Sky Conference meet. Coach Justin Loftus said afterward he hoped it would be a "wake-up call." Judging by workouts the past week, it was.

"I feel like they're going to turn it up a notch this weekend," says Loftus.

Led by individual winner Jake Keyser, Crater won last year's state crown with 41 points, well ahead of runner-up Klamath Union's 74. The Comets return their top six runners from a year ago, and all are stronger and more experienced.

They wear their lofty state, regional and national rankings on their backs like targets.

"It'll be tougher at state because a lot of teams want to come out and do well against us," says Loftus. "But like I told the guys, we don't need to worry about other people, just ourselves."

Junior Zach Elliott has emerged as the Comets' top runner. He won the Southern Sky title last Saturday, and his season-best time of 15:51 for 5,000 meters ranks third in Class 5A. He's assumed the mantle of leadership vacated when Keyser graduated.

"He's really set the tone for the team," says Loftus. "He does every workout at 100 percent or better. He's that guy now that is really starting to push our team. Whereas we had five or six guys who would all be together, he's breaking out a little bit in the workouts. I think anything can happen with Zach at state."

He could win it. Or, he could watch one of his teammates win it.

Senior Ryan Santana and sophomore Josh Elliott, Zach's brother, didn't do as well at district as expected, but Loftus believes they'll rebound at state.

Santana is the top returner in Class 5A, having finished fifth last year. He won a meet in Yreka, Calif., earlier this season and was the Comets' leader in a big race in Boise, Idaho, several weeks ago. He has a best of 16:04, as does Josh Elliott, who broke the school record for the two-mile last spring and came into the fall off a successful summer.

"All three of those guys have a lot of potential," says Loftus.

Crater's Jerrod Puckett, Curtis Yungen and Wyatt Rice-Narusch have season-best times that are within eight seconds of each other, starting with Puckett's 16:17.

Last year at state, Crater had five of the top 18 placers in team competition. Loftus wouldn't be surprised to see that grouping improve Saturday, and if it does, the Comets will be difficult to overtake.

Jared Bassett of Marshfield has a 5A-leading time of 15:29. The No. 2 time belongs to Jordan Ringe of Hermiston, who has gone 15:40.

Hermiston figures to be the top — and possibly lone — challenger to the Comet boys.

In the girls meet, Crater returns four of its top six runners from last year's state meet and should battle Crescent Valley and Summit for the top spot.

The Comets had an eye-opening district meet, with the first five finishers representing the Central Point school. Riley Swanson won her second straight district title, and Kayleigh Tyerman followed her across the finish line.

"If we just live up to our own expectations," says Loftus, "things will play out the way they should. Kayleigh and Riley should be fighting for that top spot."

Tyerman is No. 4 in the state with a time of 18:58.8. Swanson is fifth, 1.1 seconds back.

The team goal for the Comets is to have no more than 50 seconds separating their first and last runners. The gap was at 24 seconds during district, when the Crater leaders stayed back with their teammates during the first part of the race.

"That should bode well for us," says Loftus. "I'm not saying we'll win — Summit packs up really well, too — but we should be in the mix."

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

Crater’s boys cross country team is led by Josh Elliott, left, Wyatt Rice-Narusch, center, and Zach Elliott. - Jamie Lusch