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Keeping pace

Crater cross country coach Justin Loftus made the decision this fall to have his team compete in fewer races than the Comets have in years past, and it seems to be paying off thus far for junior Andy Monroe.

One week removed from leading the Comets to the Class 5A boys team crown — a feat that meant considerably more to Monroe than earning his first state cross country title in that same race — the 16-year-old was back at it Saturday in the Nike Cross Nationals Northwest Regionals in Boise, Idaho.

Monroe toured the 5,000-meter Eagle Island course in 15 minutes, 31.7 seconds to place third at the regional for the second straight year, accomplishing his ultimate goal of earning a spot in the national championships on Dec. 3 at Glendoveer Golf Course in Portland.

Elite runners from Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming competed at the regional. James Mwaura of Tacoma, Washington, won in 15:13.2 and Chase Equall of Bozeman XC was runner-up in 15:18.7.

“He did exactly what he had to do to make it to nationals,” said Loftus. “Obviously the goal is always to win, especially coming back off finishing in third place the previous year, but it’s just hard to say what the conditions are going to do to you or how the race is going to go when you’re going up against the top runners from seven states.”

Monroe, who won the 5A title with a time of 15:20, carried a goal of finishing among the top three into the race — mostly because of the cool medals awarded to those in that group — so that was a good thing.

That Crater finished fifth as a team and all the Comets would not be advancing to nationals did put a damper on the day for Monroe. The top two teams and top five individuals not on those teams advanced.

Bozeman XC won with 76 points and Central Oregon Track Club, which is the Summit High program, earned the other team spot at nationals with 98 points. Crater scored 217 points after having a tough day on the unforgiving course, with Derek Tripp finishing 34th (16:09.3) and Erik Olsen 66th (16:29.5).

“It was heartbreaking to see them so upset,” said Monroe. “I wasn’t even really that amused by my performance just because I wanted to go (to nationals) with my team. I’ve experienced that before and I was so excited to show them that and have them see the same things I saw last year. Nationals changed my life, it was the coolest experience I’ve ever had and I wanted to see them have that experience, too.”

Not being able to run at your optimal level at the Northwest Regionals isn’t exactly a new thing. The course has taken down the best of the best for years.

Last year’s 5A state champion, Crater’s Walter Vail, was on his way to potential victory with 800 meters to go before dropping in the final 200 meters. This year’s 6A state champion, West Salem’s Ahmed Muhumed, was fourth at the regional last year and entered this race with a state championship time only one second off Monroe’s, but wound up 13th in 15:51.

“It’s the hardest cross country course I’ve ever run in my life,” said Monroe, who won state titles in the 1,500 and 3,000 last spring in track. “It has everything, some insane hills, sand, grass and uneven dirt ... it’s a true cross country course. This course takes down a bunch of really legitimate runners every year, so it makes me feel more confident in myself that I was able to finish near the top for the second straight year. It shows that I just didn’t have an insane race before, I’m meant to be up there with the best.”

Before he can seriously look at nationals, the 6-foot-1, 155-pounder has another important race coming this Sunday when he competes in the Nike BorderClash, which pits the top runners from Oregon and Washington against one another.

The 18th annual BorderClash is typically looked at as a fun event between state and regional competitions and the season-ending national championships, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot at stake. Washington has won 15 of the 17 boys races, and Oregon runners are getting a little tired of placing second at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton.

“Last year, everyone was super-motivated, saying this is the year for Oregon and we didn’t quite get it,” said Monroe. “It’s big bragging rights in the high school running world ... big, big bragging rights.”

If the race comes to him, Monroe said he certainly wouldn’t mind finishing with the individual title. Still, he likely won’t risk too much with the pursuit of lofty nationals goals on the horizon.

“I can see it’s going to probably be a fast race this year because I’m sure Ahmed is probably fired up after not making nationals,” Monroe said of his roommate at last year’s nationals.

Muhumed has signed with Boise State and was third to Monroe’s fifth in last year’s BorderClash. “Last year Justin Janke (of Washington) destroyed everybody after the same thing.”

“We’ll see, everyone’s always at least a little bit competitive there,” he added. “It would be awesome to win and know I can test myself like that, but what’s the bigger picture, winning BorderClash or maybe placing top 10 at nationals? It’s probably better not to test it out and risk it because I have some high hopes at nationals this year, but you never know how it’s going to go until you’re there in it.”

Monroe placed 54th at nationals last year and has vowed to “let it all out” in this year’s race in hopes of at least earning All-American status (top 21).

How he’s able to keep up such a steady, strong pace seems incredible given the increasingly tough fields he’s been facing, but Monroe said it’s because of those races that he feels confident and prepared to give it his all down to the final race.

He said there’s also a confidence that comes from being part of Crater’s program, in which Loftus has helped kick-start the career of many elite distance runners over the years.

“It just makes me feel super blessed to have the gift to run with all the coaches and the teammates that I have at Crater,” said Monroe, whose top time this year is 15:15.5. “I like going up there to Portland and representing Southern Oregon and Central Point. It's super cool putting the town’s name out there any way I can.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Andy Monroe, of Crater, is shown crossing the finish line to win the Class 5A cross country state championship. He added to his list of impressive performances Saturday by taking third at the Nike Northwest Regional. PHOTO BY ANDY ATKINSON