Distance runners train with a partner, and Emma Garza’s was with her the entire season.
The pain in her hip slowed her pace to the point that, some days, all she could do was go home, apply packs of ice and try to stretch.
“I injured my hip in track – it’s on the outside of my hip, and it affects my hamstring,” the West Valley junior explained. “It’s been off and on, but it’s gotten better. It’s a mental thing. I know the pain is just going to be there, and I try to push it off to the side. It’s been hard, knowing that I’m not going to get the times I got last year.”
Last year, her sophomore season, was special. The Eagles went to the state Class 2A cross country meet in hopes of a top four finish. With Annika Esvelt and Garza leading the way, West Valley finished second, eight points behind state champion Sehome.
This year has been different.
There’s the growth spurt that turned Garza from the 5-foot-3-inch runner she was as a sophomore into a 5-9 junior with longer legs and a longer stride.
“I can feel it every once in a while, how tall I’ve gotten,” she said. “I’m having to pull more weight, and it’s harder to get my legs to move up and push myself off.”
The hardest part, however, was not being at the front of the pack. Instead of being a high scorer for West Valley, she too often did not score at all.
In cross country, a team’s first five runners to cross the finish line count toward the team score. The two team members who don’t score are referred to as “displacers,” and they contribute to a team score by finishing ahead of a competitor’s top five.
Before juniors Sadie Langford, Jenna Engeland, Esvelt and Garza arrived at West Valley to join the cross country team, the Eagles had trouble fielding enough runners to fill out a full varsity team. At times, there weren’t five runners to score the race as a team.
Senior Sydney Stone was around for those days and helped spark the turnaround, running at state as a freshman. Fellow senior Sarah Adamson played soccer as a freshman and quickly became an integral part of the group.
That core group returned the Eagles to the top levels of the state Class 2A ranks, and they set their sights on winning the school’s third state title and first since 1986.
“We talked about winning the (state) meet ever since last year,” coach John Moir said. “We’ve talked about what it would take to make it happen, and we laid it out. But it’s been a long season, and the girls were pretty tired going into the meet. We didn’t really race like we were planning on. It took too much out of getting through the dual meet season.
“We got through our second dual meet season undefeated and won the district meet for the second year in a row. But all those things were wearing them down, and we ran regionals just to qualify. We didn’t want to blow it out the week before state.”
Still, he knew, the state meet in Pasco was going to be a guts race.
The key to West Valley’s success is in its ability to run in a tight pack. At any point in a race, an Eagle harrier can look over her shoulder and see a teammate on her heels. Or two. Or three. Meet after meet, the gap between the team’s first and seventh runner is the smallest in the field.
Race technology provides real-time race updates. Runners wear a chip tied to a shoe, and there are updated standings provided at 1 mile intervals.
“We knew it was going to be close,” Moir said. “Bellingham and Pullman both have great teams, and we knew every place was going to be important.”
That opinion didn’t change as the coach kept checking the information being flashed to his phone.
Out on the course, however, things changed by the mile.
“The first mile was pretty great,” Garza said. “The second mile, though, I could feel myself starting to doubt my abilities. I just kept telling myself that I was almost done with this season. The last mile I just gave it all that I could and tried to get the best spot I could.”
Somewhere along that home stretch Garza passed one last Bellingham runner, but pain and exhaustion was written across her face as she crossed the finish.
Moir didn’t like what he saw on his phone.
“The live results showed us finishing second,” he said. “But cross country doesn’t score based on the chip. It’s not where your foot crosses the finish line – it’s where your chest crosses. Those chip results weren’t necessarily how the finish would be scored.”
“Literally, five minutes after the race he told us that we were two points behind first,” Garza said. “That kind of hurt, to be honest. But coach kept saying ‘It’s unofficial, it’s unofficial. There’s still hope. There’s still a chance.’ We were just very quiet, putting on our sweats and talking to our parents and to each other.”
The minutes stretched on. Ten minutes. Fifteen.
Finally, West Valley athletic director Jaimie Nilles was dispatched to the scoring tent to find out what was happening.
After 20 minutes, Nilles was back with the news, and he whispered it to the coach.
Moir gathered his team and, after beating around the bush for a few seconds, congratulated them on being state champions.
“I was already crying, I was just so happy,” Garza said.
“It was a tie between us and Bellingham at 118 points each,” Moir explained. “The tie-breaker in cross country is the sixth-place runner for each team, but in this case, it was even more important than that. Emma had picked off Bellingham’s fifth-place finisher, so there was a displacement point there that created the tie. If she hadn’t finished ahead of her, Bellingham would have won by a single point.”
Moir explained that to the team.
“Coach said, ‘It was so close. It was a tie, and it came down to our sixth runner.’” Garza said. “Everyone’s head snapped around to look at me. ‘Emma, that’s you!’
“I was just so glad I was able to contribute in any way. Perseverance has a lot of power to it.”
Keeping a close eye on this year’s squad has been the last West Valley team to win the state title, the 1986 squad led by Amy Duryee and Tonian Kasparian, who finished first and third, respectively, at Fort Warden State Park in Port Townsend.
“I am so happy and proud of you girls!” Tonian Kasparian Gray wrote on the team’s Facebook page. “This day will be in your hearts forever, welcome to the state champ club, ladies, you are amazing!”
The knowledge that, in years to come, future West Valley runners will tell the state championship story this group wrote in 2018 is just now dawning on Garza and her teammates.
“If I can inspire younger runners, that’s great,” Garza said. “It’s kind of cool to know that they will come into the school, look up on the wall and see our names.”