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2021 Cross Country Preview
Idaho high school XC continues to raise the bar.
Published: 8/30/2021 1:17:29 PM
Marlowe Hereford
Contributing Writer


Recent seasons have brought historic accomplishments, elite competition and national recognition for Idaho cross country runners, coaches and teams.

Boise winning the Bob Firman girls elite race and placing 10th at Nike Cross Nationals in 2018.

Mountain View's Lexy Halladay winning the Jim Danner girls race against nationally ranked competition at Nike Portland in 2019.

Soda Springs head coach Jeff Horsley becoming the first Idaho coach to receive National High School Girls Cross County Coach of the Year by the National High School Coaches Association in January 2020

Borah's Nathan Green breaking the 15-minute barrier in October 2020.

Those are just a few of the accolades that have gone to the Gem State.

The next chance to add to this history began last week with the first meets of 2021.

Here is a look at who is back, who is new, what dates to circle on the calendar and what coaches and runners from defending state champion teams are excited for this season in Idaho's five classifications.

Class 5A

The Boise girls and Idaho Falls boys made impressive statements at last October's state championship meet at Pocatello's Portneuf Wellness Complex, claiming the 5A titles with respective low scores of 18 and 23 points.

The girls title was the third consecutive for the Brave, who had five runners place in the top seven and a 1-2-3 finish from freshman Samantha Smith, senior Rosina Machu (now at Gonzaga) and freshman Allie Bruce.

Of Boise's seven runners who competed at last season's state meet, the Brave return six. At the 5A state track championships in May, Boise's distance event girls scored a combined 74 points en route to helping the Brave win the team title with 157 total points and a 106 point victory margin.

This bodes well for this fall, but head coach Aaron Olswanger said the Brave are not looking too far ahead.

"The girls have had a great summer," head coach Aaron Olswanger said. "We have a clean slate right now. We try not to look at last season. With the group of seniors we have this year, they're tremendous leaders, tremendous role models for those programs."

It was an especially busy summer for Logan Smith, Bruce and defending 5A girls state individual cross country champion Samantha Smith, who ran nothing but sub-17:50 times last season. They are dual fall sport athletes, competing in cross country and soccer simultaneously for the Brave, and Logan Smith is a Stanford soccer commit. Olswanger said it takes consistent communication between the coaches of both sports to make sure these girls have enough time for recovery and rest.

"If they're a little beat up, we're gonna cut back," Olswanger said. "We all know they're not gonna slack. Logan, especially from her freshman year on, she's really grasped that. It's really put things in perspective to learn to take care of her body."

With so many returning runners in a program that has become a powerhouse and garnered national recognition, chemistry and culture are words Olswanger uses often when describing the Brave. This fall is the fifth consecutive year Olswanger has had leadership positions instead of captains for his team. The idea came from his wife, who has had leadership positions for students rather than captains for as long as she has been Boise High's band director. Rather than coaches or students voting on captains, students must apply for leadership positions as they would apply for a job.

"They have to fill out an application," said Olswanger, who has 90 runners combined in his boys and girls programs. "All six of the returning girls from state, they applied for leadership positions. That's the culture that we've developed. The three seniors in that group who are all strong leaders in their own right, the younger kids who lead by example, it's such a great blend. Our boys are the same way."

Olswanger said seeing the caliber that Idaho cross country runners and programs has reached has been 'incredible,' and he expressed joy at seeing enthusiasm and participation grow.

"It's becoming a sport that kids like to do," Olswanger said. "I think we have chances to race against some of the best teams around. When you get to see good competition every week and see what these coaches are doing, it helps everybody out."

On the boys side of 5A, Idaho Falls is in a noticeably different position than the Boise girls. The Tigers graduated four of their five medalists from last season, which was their first back in 5A after four years and three consecutive team titles in 4A.

Those four graduating medalists--Mitchell Athay, Zac Bright, Joseph Ereaux and Porter Elison--helped the Tigers do what no other sports program in Idaho Falls High history had done by claiming a 'four-peat.' Athay, Ereaux and Elison were part of all four title winning teams while Bright was part of the last three and an alternate in 2017.

Like Olswanger, longtime Idaho Falls head coach Alan McMurtrey said the Tigers are trying not to look too far ahead. He added that staying healthy is a priority as the I.F. boys do not have the depth they have had in previous seasons. "I think we have some younger kids that are really excited about trying to step up, but everybody knows that we did lose a ton of talent and experience," McMurtrey said. "There's just so many variables. We're kinda taking it week by week. I think some kids are pretty excited about their opportunity to be up there on varsity and see what they can do."

I.F.'s lone returning boys medalist is sophomore Luke Athay, who passed two seniors in the final 300 meters to place fourth at last year's state meet in 15:55.94. After competing at the Outdoor Nationals at the University of Oregon's newly restored Hayward Field in July, he spent his summer attending running camps, training on his own and building a base for this fall.

"It's still taking some getting used to," Athay said of being a returning state medalist as a sophomore. "I'm just trying to help our team, and hopefully have a shot of doing well at state."

Athay said the class of 2021 embodied the value of hard work and forming friendships with teammates that last beyond the season. This was evident by how much they ran together in the offseason, staying in touch and rising early to meet up and run.

"I think that's the most important thing I learned from them," Athay said.

McMurtrey said Athay has great support and 'is doing everything right so far.'

"Having those mentors and the family support he gets and the xperience he's been able to get as a young age, we're definitely looking forward to a fun, fun ride," McMurtrey said. "He is an intelligent young man and very respectful, very pleased and excited to be a part of this for the next few years. We're making sure we're not rushing things with him at all."

The 5A individual boys title will be up for grabs upon the graduation of three time defending champion Nathan Green of Borah (now at Washington). Athay, who broke the 16-minute barrier three times last season, said he is aiming for the individual gold medal and is hoping to help the Tigers claim another state banner and trophy.

He said he loves the Idaho Falls program and having teammates who want to be part of the program as much as he does. "It's a great thing to be working hard and trying to be a great team," Athay said. "We have a great group who is used to working hard."

McMurtrey acknowledged the level of talent among Idaho's 5A girls, especially Boise. The Tigers, who were the only 5A team to claim both a boys and girls trophy last fall, return multiple girls from last year's fourth place team including medalists and juniors Elanor Eddington and Allison Lemons. McMurtrey said Hannah Kohler and Abbey Corgatelli, who are seniors now, bring much experience and leadership.

The past two seasons, it was not unusual for those four girls to finish in a different order depending on the meet and the conditions, yet still remain a tight pack. McMurtrey said he could anticipate more of that this fall.

"We really try to work on a culture of 'we,'" McMurtrey said. "We do a good job of picking each other up if somebody has a bad race and celebrating when someone has a good race. I think that's why we've had the success we've had."

Class 4A

For the third time in five years, the 4A girls cross country team title came down to five points or fewer last October. Helped by a historic win by freshman Nelah Roberts, Skyline claimed the title 62-67 over fellow eastern Idaho team Preston.

Like Athay, Roberts trained on her own over the summer and attended two running camps. She said 2021 seniors Raegan Hart and four-time individual state medalist Sariah Harrison were supportive and encouraging to her, and she is also striving to be just as supportive to Skyline's incoming freshmen.

She added that she has seen the result of the work her teammates have put in during the offseason.

"A lot of them have been working super hard this summer," Roberts said. "We're all kind of in a pack now. I think we're a super strong team."

Rebecca Johnson, Anni Mickelsen, Marina Renna and Abby Couch all ran at state last year and return for the Grizzlies, and Renna is a returning medalist. Longtime Skyline coach Sean Schmidt said they are doing well so far.

"They're putting in the work that they need to put in," Schmidt said.

Roberts made two-fold history at last October's state meet, becoming Skyline's first individual girls cross country state champion and running an all-time eastern Idaho best girls 5k time of 17:52.06. She and Harrison are the only eastern Idaho girls on record to have ever broken 18 minutes for a 5k course, and Roberts said she is aiming to break 17:30 next.

"It's pretty lofty and far-fetched, but I think I can do it," Roberts said.

The third sibling in her family to be part of a state championship team, following in the footsteps of older brother Harrison (member of Skyline's 2016 4A boys state title team) and older sister Adria (member of Skyline's 2017 4A girls state title team), Roberts is looking forward to meets that did not take place her freshman season due to COVID-19. The annual Bob Firman Invitational at Eagle Island State Park is back on the schedule with 152 teams registered so far, including 2018 Nike Cross Nationals girls champion Summit (Ore.), national powerhouse Great Oak (Calif.) and multi-Nike Cross Nationals qualifier Jesuit (Ore.). It takes place Sept. 25.

Roberts has never competed at Eagle Island State Park before and is eager for her chance. "I'm definitely ready for it," she said.

Roberts has already faced elite competition frequently within eastern Idaho. The other four top finishers from last year's 4A state meet are all underclassmen, and three of them are from eastern Idaho: Pocatello's Bailey Bird and Bonneville teammates Alivia Johnson and Kennedy Kunz.

Schmidt pinned Preston, whose top five finishers at last year's state meet were all underclassmen, as the favorite on the girls side. All four trophy winning teams were from eastern Idaho, which Schmidt anticipates seeing again.

"On the girls side, I don't think anyone is gonna get a trophy except for eastern Idaho," Schmidt said.

Eastern Idaho claimed the top three trophies on the boys side last year, and the individual title will be up for grabs upon the graduation of Pocatello's Shane Gard. Schmidt said Blackfoot, which placed third last year and is the defending 4A District 6 champion, is his favorite to win the boys team title. Six of Blackfoot's seven state runners were underclassmen, and Eli Gregory and Justin Whitehead both medaled. A senior this year, Gregory won his home meet on Aug. 26.

Class 3A

Eastern Idaho has dominated 3A cross country, winning the boys or girls team title every year since 2008. For the last four years, Sugar-Salem has claimed the 3A boys and girls team titles.

The Diggers show no sign of slowing down, as they return every single boy and girl who competed at last October's state meet.

"We were a young team last year, relatively," Sugar-Salem head coach Brett Hill said. "This year, we're gonna be a senior laden team. It's an awesome thing for a coach to have."

Hill said senior Jaresa Jackson, the two-time defending individual state runner-up, is in the mix for the girls individual title with Fruitland's Emma Hillam upon the graduation of McCall-Donnelly's Sophie McManus. Jackson and fellow senior and three-time state medalist Ryley Klingler will again be a strong 1-2 punch for the Diggers.

"Those two girls were outstanding on the track," Hill said. "With their leadership, I feel really strong. I really like our chances."

Like 4A, eastern Idaho had a dominant showing at the 3A girls state meet last year. Right behind the Sugar-Salem girls in second and third place were Snake River and South Fremont, two teams Hill anticipates will again contend for trophies as well as Bonners Ferry. South Fremont, which belongs to the Mountain Rivers Conference like Sugar-Salem, came away with the third place trophy after having not sent a girls team to state since 2005.

"Ryan (Campbell's) done a great job with that program," Hill said. "We'll race each other a lot. I think fifth and sixth districts are gonna be trophy teams again."

Eastern Idaho claimed three of four available boys trophies last year, with Sugar-Salem's conference foe Teton taking second and Snake River placing fourth. Defending individual champion Owen Rogers of Gooding has graduated, opening the door for returning runner-up Logan Davis of Coeur d'Alene Charter and third place finisher Porter Holt of Sugar.

Holt, whom Hill expects to again form a strong duo with fellow senior Brigham Dalling, had an eye-catching finish to last season. He brought his times down from sub-19:50 to 16:50.2 at state and claimed the 3A District 6 individual title along the way.

"He just kinda came out of nowhere last year," Hill said. "He was just out of our top seven. Something sparked him toward the end and he decided he wanted to run varsity."

Hill said this senior group has been stellar, going from newbies to being part of this 3A state title streak. At Sugar-Salem's team camp, he encouraged them to keep a legacy going to their younger teammates, a point he demonstrated by bringing the torch he carried as a torch bearer when the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics torch relay route went through Idaho.

"They're hard working kids and we talked about passing the torch and making sure that this will continue," Hill said.

Class 2A

One streak continued while another was snapped in 2A at last October's state meet.

Led by a 1-2 finish from brothers Johnathon and Danny Simmons, the Salmon boys won their third consecutive 2A team title and individual title. On the girls side, Bear Lake ended district rival Soda Springs' all Idaho, all classification and all sport record of 14 consecutive state titles by claiming the team title 53 to 79 over the Cardinals.

Bear Lake had been closing the gap on Soda Springs in seasons prior, and the Bears got the job done last season thanks to five medalists. Three of them were freshmen.

Nick Thomas, Salmon's new head coach upon the retirement of longtime coach Cecil Jackson, knows all about closing the gap. Thomas, who ran at Salmon for coach Jackson and coached alongside him for five years, remembers when Salmon took second to the Soda Springs boys by one point in 2017 before stringing together three consecutive individual and team titles.

Salmon's girls are in a similar position to where the boys were in 2017. Last year, Salmon took third by one point to Soda Springs. Six of the last seven seasons, Salmon has placed second or third at the 2A girls state meet.

"Credit to the coaches on this side of the state for being as consistent as they've been for so long and making that team have that same culture year after year," Thomas said. "We've got four returners (on the girls team), all juniors, and we've got a bunch of freshmen that have been running really well together. We're hoping to do the same thing, catch people's eye and shock people at state."

The Salmon girls, who have no seniors, will be led by returning medalists Sedona Cannon and Sara Deschaine.

"They're super motivated for this season, focused on goals and helping out the freshmen," Thomas said. "Having the two of them kinda meld together to make the whole team better has pretty inspiring to see."

Wendell's Jessica Duran is defending 2A individual state champion, and the three girls who finished behind her were also underclassmen.

Thomas anticipates an even more competitive 2A boys title battle this season, adding that Salmon's goal is to extend its title streak. The boys individual title will be open upon the graduation of two-time defending champion Johnathon Simmons, a Utah State signee who went undefeated last season. Thomas said returning medalists Micah Tolman and Nathan Deschaine bring experience and lead by example, and Danny Simmons will be Salmon's lead boy runner this season.

"Last year, he was super happy the only person to beat him was his brother," Thomas said. "They're a couple years apart but they have basically the exact same routine almost. Danny, he's definitely ready to step up and lead us."

Class 1A

Prior to last season, Raft River High had not sponsored a cross country program since 1999.

Thanks to the recruiting efforts of individual runners and twin sisters Kaybree and Karlee Christensen, the Trojans put a girls team together and ultimately won a program first state championship, 41 to 66 over district foe Oakley.

Kaybree and Karlee have continued their careers with Utah State, but the Trojans have a full team again this year with eight girls. Their parents, Mike and Brooke, are Raft River's cross country coaches. Brooke said cross country has given kids a place to belong. She has one girl on the team that has never participated in a sport before.

"They're the kids that don't feel like they fit with the other fall sports," Brooke said. "They're a a great group. That's what I love about cross country. Everybody participates and at the end of the race, you feel good. That's my favorite part about it, watching their confidence grow."

Allie Black, a freshman who completed a 1-2-3 finish behind the Christensen twins at last year's state meet, is Raft River's top returning girl this season. Two other girls returned while everyone else is new including the next Christensen: Ashlee, a freshman. Brooke Christensen said Oakley should be competitive again this year, as well as Logos, which placed third last year with four underclassmen among their top five finishers.

Both Brooke and Mike said it has been exciting to see where the Raft River program was and where it is now.

Furthermore, Kaybree and Karlee have been a source of inspiration to their younger classmates upon receiving Division I offers.

"It's really amazing to see these kids and their confidence increase," Brooke said.

Mike said he and Brooke, who are still learning about the sport, have received advice and support from other coaches. He is grateful for that help, and he expressed amazement at the tight knit community of cross country that is unlike anything he has ever witnessed from other sports.

"My brother has kids that go to Valley. Valley's coach has been really great about giving us training material," Mike said. "Even Oakley's coach has been the same way. The people that are around the sport want to see the kids succeed."

Like 2A, a title streak was snapped in 1A last year as the Victory Charter boys ended Liberty Charter's three year run behind seven top 25 finishes and six medalists. Of those medalists, four were underclassmen. The 1A boys individual title will be up for grabs as defending champ Connor Gardner of Liberty Charter has graduated.

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