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Comets, Eustace among state-title contenders

Southern Oregon runners have been dominant in recent state cross country meets, but graduation losses and, to a lesser degree, realignment, could limit the region's impact this weekend.

A year ago, three individuals and two teams captured championships at Lane Community College in Eugene.

When the 5,000-meter races unfold there Saturday, only the Crater boys, led by Max Runia, and Cascade Christian's Hudson Eustace could be labeled favorites for team and individual titles.

Crater captured its fourth straight Class 5A title last season and is coming off a victory in the Southwest Conference district meet last weekend. Runia has the state's No. 2 time for Class 6A runners.

Eustace leads a Challengers team that won its second district title in a row and was fourth at state last year. He owns the best mark in Class 3A/2A/1A and realizes he "has a target" on his back.

They're left to carry the torch after last year's individual winners — Drew Jordan of North Medford, Zach Elliott of Crater and Cole Watson of Rogue River — moved on, as has the contingent that helped St. Mary's claim three straight 3A/2A/1A crowns.

Crater moved up to Class 6A this year, and coach Justin Loftus is quick to point out the last eight big-school boys titles have been won by Central Catholic (five) and Jesuit (three).

The Comets haven't competed head-to-head with Jesuit but have twice won meets that included Central Catholic.

West Linn has all its runners back from last year and was the favorite entering the season, says Loftus, but it finished behind Crater in one meet and lost to Jesuit in another.

"I think it's pretty even right now," says Loftus, adding, "Central Catholic brings it a little more at state. That's why I don't overlook them at all."

Crater has focused on team success all season. It was evident at district last week when Matthew Melancon of South Eugene, the state leader, went out fast, and his Comet rivals were content not to chase but to hang back and bring teammates along.

Crater's Jon Obeso was second and owns the state's No. 3 time, 15:23.6, established earlier in the season.

Looking toward state, Obeso says, "We're hoping to do well. We've got some good competition up north, so when we get to state, it's going to be another challenge."

Runia's best time this year is 15:13.3, just 21/2 seconds off Melancon's leading time.

Eustace, a junior, hopes for a better performance than he had in his first trip to state last season. He was ill prior to the race and lost some of his fitness. He was ranked in the top 10 but placed 13th.

Owner of the state's top time of 16:10 and having cruised to an easy win at the District 6 meet last week, Eustace is rarin' to go this time.

His best time is eight seconds ahead of his nearest pursuer, Ryan Maag of Nyssa. Eustace ran it in the Stagecoach Run, a community event in Jacksonville that included prep competition. Intent on making up for a poor race at the Nike Pre-Nationals a couple weeks earlier, he used older, stronger runners as pacers.

"I knew ever since the day I ran that time, I was painting a big target on my back," says Eustace. "I know personally that it's big motivation if there's a guy right in front of you; you try to take it to the next level. I'm sure the guys right behind me are thinking that about me right now."

Perhaps rightly so.

Three other runners ranked in the top six in the state ran in the Nike at Portland Meadows and had considerably better times than Eustace's 17:43. They ran in different divisions but over the same course, and the best of the bunch was Nick Obletz of Oregon Episcopal, who clocked 16:52.

Of the state meet, Eustace says, "I think it's anyone's race. I'm not at all convinced that I have it locked down."

Apart from Eustace, Runia and Obeso, the only other local runner with a top-five time in his or her classification is Jorge Gil Juarez of Phoenix. The senior has gone 15:54, tying for third among Class 4A boys.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or e-mail ttrower@mailtribune.com