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Holland, Grizzlies chasing crowns

After a relatively muted regular season, Ashland running star EJ Holland and company are ready to make some noise at the cross country state championships Saturday in Eugene.

Holland, among the best high school distance competitors in the nation and a University of Oregon commit, will try to defend the Class 5A crown he won last year and, if it’s in the cards, put up a memorable — if not historic — time.

He’s not guaranteeing anything, mind you, or even suggesting his goal is to set records. He voiced that intention before last year’s state meet, and all it did was saddle him with unnecessary burden through the course of the 5,000-meter race at Lane Community College.

“For sure, just a little more of a conservative approach,” said Holland, a senior who is ranked fourth nationally by Dyestat.

More overt has been Ashland’s team goal of bringing home the school’s fourth boys state championship and the first since 1993.

The Grizzlies are ranked No. 1 among 5A teams and last week won the Midwestern League title over Crater — the reigning three-time state champion — by having the top four finishers and scoring 23 points to the Comets’ 47.

In hypothetical team scoring on athletic.net for the state meet, the form chart has Ashland scoring 46 points and winning comfortably over, in order, Crescent Valley, Hood River Valley and Crater.

Grizzlies coach Hans Voskes acknowledges those are the leading contenders, but he isn’t yet counting his chickens.

“We feel pretty good,” he said, “but it’s not automatic. It’s not going to be given to us. We have to go out there and battle for it. I think the kids are fit and mentally willing to go out there and do what needs to be done, so it all looks pretty good.”

The state meet for all classifications is Saturday at Lane, which this year will feature a slightly reconfigured course, rendering previous course records obsolete.

Other local teams that could challenge for a top-four placing and a trophy are Crater’s girls, who dope out to finish fifth, and Phoenix’s girls, who pencil out seventh in the 4A meet. The Ashland girls and South Medford boys also qualified full teams.

Holland changed his game plan this fall to improve his chances in the three big meets that will complete his high school career: state, regional and national.

He skipped four of Ashland’s seven meets prior to district, focusing instead on his training. Even when he did compete, he didn’t lighten up on his training as he might have in the past.

Despite the limited competition, Holland rates the season a success, so far.

“I’ve been really focusing on the postseason and getting ready for that,” he said. “It’s here. Thankfully, I’m feeling really, really ready and very fit and ready to race. I think state is going to be really fun.”

When he did toe the line this fall, his wares were on display.

He’s won all four races, went under 15 minutes in two of them and set a personal record of 14:51.7 in the Rogue Valley Runners Max King Invitational a month ago.

On legs zapped of energy, no less.

Holland’s training has consisted of about 60 miles a week, varying between surfaces — nationals is all on grass, so that’s been a point of emphasis — and mixing in speed training with endurance work.

“Basically,” said Holland, “I’m running through most my meets and not really thinking of them as races. Let’s go get a hard effort and try to run fast on maybe pretty tired legs. That was no different at the Max King.”

To prepare for state, he’s knocking 10 to 15 miles off his weekly load.

“That’s the most consistent mileage I’ve ever had,” said Holland, “so with that has come a lot of fitness, and I’ve gained a lot of strength and speed from different workouts.

“I’m really looking forward to feeling fresh and ready to race with dropping that mileage a little bit.”

Holland had two goals at state last year. The first was to win, the second was to break Galen Rupp’s junior class record of 14:56. The Grizzly standout realized with a mile to go the time wasn’t going to come, and he eased to victory in 15:30.

“I had two different types of views,” said Holland. “I wanted to make sure I won, and the easiest way to do that was break open the field. Sometimes that doesn’t really correlate with a fast time, that kind of strategy.”

The record for the 5K course that had been used since 1975 was 14:45 by Summit’s Matthew Maton in 2014.

The alteration to the course, which will remain 5K, was prompted because part of it was on private property that is no longer available for use. The races now will be contained on the Lane campus, with one flat spot replacing the former stretch along Poison Oak Alley. The change is expected to have little impact on runners.

The new course is the same one used for the Northwest Classic, a meet Holland ran in as a junior and won with a course record of 14:59.7.

Holland’s closest challenger is Parkrose senior Ahmed Ibrahim, who set a PR this fall of 15:05 — more than 13 seconds behind Holland — and who was third in the state last year.

Next in line are Holland’s teammates, junior Reed Pryor (15:13.5) and senior Arlo Davis (15:18.8).

At the MWL meet, they placed in that order, with junior Cameron Stein, whose PR is 15:38.6, coming in fourth. Stein is seventh in the 5A rankings.

The top five of seven runners count toward team scoring. The fifth spot will likely go to Vincent Senn or Nathan Stein, who are in the mid-16s. Jordan Kemper, filling in for injured Henry Williams, rounds out the contingent.

“They’re ready to contribute, and that’s the beauty of this team,” said Voskes. “It’s a full-team contribution.”

Crater has won eight state titles in 13 years, but it will be hard-pressed to catch the Grizzlies.

The Comets are led by Gage Reed and Matthew Schenk, who rank eighth and 10th in the state.

“Obviously, we always look at Crater,” said Voskes. “One reason we have improved over the last couple years is just to stay up with Crater. That’s an incredible program. They run so well, and in order to compete with them, you have to make some changes and you have to work hard.”

Cascade Christian’s Jake Sorani ranks sixth among 3A boys with a time of 16:38.6.

In girls races, Phoenix’s Sophia Stubblefield, the Skyline Conference champion, has the fifth-best 4A time of 18:52.9.

Crater’s Presley Robison is sixth among 5A girls with a time of 18:35.7.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneAshland's EJ Holland crosses the finish line winning the Max King Invite last month at the Jackson County Expo.