There are moments from last year’s State 4A championship cross country meet that will be forever frozen in Michael Lee’s mind.
And lessons learned that will be stressed by coaches everywhere.
Lee’s Lewis and Clark Tigers eked out an 86-87 win over Greater Spokane League rival Central Valley to claim the state title. To say the margin of victory could not be closer is a gross understatement.
“If even one of our guys got passed by one guy at the finish, we would have lost to CV in a tiebreaker,” Lee said. “It was just that close.”
The 3-mile, Sun Willows Golf Course race was a microcosm of the entire fall season. It covered a great distance, but in the end the only thing that counted on the scoreboard was where everybody finished.
“I’m pretty sure that every one of our guys ran their personal record at state,” Lee said. “We ran against (CV) at a meet over on the coast and we lost to them by a couple of points. But that got us thinking that this was possible.”
Lee and his runners began plotting their race strategy, looking for spots where every runner could improve their own performance while improving the team score.
Lee said he had an inkling that his team was on the verge of something special with about one-half mile to go.
“It was a pivotal state meet for (No. 1 runner) Will Smith,” the coach said. “Our race plan involved him being toward the front. With a half-mile to go, Will was in the lead group. I thought to myself, ‘Hey, he could win this thing.’ That wasn’t in our thinking, and ever since then I think he’s seen himself in a different light and the runners around him are taking notice.”
Smith finished sixth, and his six teammates followed with similar performances.
“I watched Patrick Korus finish like a madman,” Lee said. “He passed a bunch of guys right there at the end. Someone said, ‘That’s where you won the state championship.’ But I think, what about every other guy who passed someone or held off someone?”
Lee credits last year’s team captain, Spencer Swaim, with providing the team with the leadership it needed to get to the finish line, figuratively and literally.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that if we didn’t have Spencer Swaim last year, there would be no state championship,” Lee said.
Repeating will take a different mindset, Lee said.
For starters, the Tigers spent last fall stalking the No. 1-ranked team in the state, Central Valley. This year, they are the ones being stalked.
“I would much rather be the hunter than the hunted,” Lee said. “But at the same time, I’m glad we have that state championship trophy. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Smith has moved into his role as the team’s lead runner. Four others return from last year’s state meet: Patrick North, Brett Bergler, Anders Nielson and Korus.
Finding a team captain, on the other hand, proved to be a bigger challenge.
“Anyone who saw (Swaim), saw the way he talked to his teammates and saw the way they listened to him, knew he was the team captain,” Lee said. “We don’t have that kind of a guy this year and I wasn’t at all sure that this group needed a de facto team captain. So I left it open to start the season.”
So when his varsity asked to come to his room at school for a talk, Lee was both surprised and impressed by what they had to say.
“They told me that they didn’t care who I picked, but they felt they needed a team captain and a leader,” Lee said. “That really showed me the level of maturity this group has, that they could self-diagnose themselves like that impressed me.
“They really didn’t care who the captain was. They had the utmost confidence in whoever I picked.”
In the end, the coach said, he didn’t settle on one team captain.
“We’re going to do things a little differently, and I think they’re good with it,” he said. “We’re going to have a captain-by-committee thing this year.”
And, like last year, the only thing that will matter is how the Tigers finish.
“Our last two GSL meets are going to be critical,” Lee said. “We have CV in that last meet, and that, I think, is going to decide the GSL championship.”