There was a lot on the line for a regular-season cross country meet on Wednesday.
To start with, there were three defending state-champion teams with four ranked in the top five at state, plus a No. 9 in the mix, and league titles to be won in boys and girls races.
Will Smith led Lewis and Clark to its first Greater Spokane League title, while Erinn Hill led four North Central runners at the top of the pack to the girls championship under a spectacular fall canopy at Manito Park.
LC’s boys are the defending State 4A champions, despite not winning the league title last season.
“In a lot of ways, a GSL title is harder to get than a state title,” LC boys coach Michael Lee said.
NC coach Dempsey Ortega echoed Lee’s comment about the level of competition.
“It’s quite an honor to win a title for a second year,” he said.
The District 8 championships are Oct. 26 in Walla Walla. The state races in Pasco on Nov. 3.
NC won the State 3A title last season with the second-lowest point total in the history of the state championship races.
It was no fluke.
The Indians are led by four talented runners – returning state champ Erinn Hill, Allie Janke, Mia Hill and Marie Taylor – who finished in that order to secure the girls title.
There’s not a senior among them. Janke, the defending state champ in the 1,600-meter run, is a sophomore. The rest are juniors.
“That makes me real happy,” Ortega said.
The NC girls team is ranked No. 1 in state 3A and in two reputable national polls: 15th by MileSplit.com and 21st by DyeStat.com. They edged defending State 4A champion LC, ranked No. 1 in state 4A.
“Our team, though a bit small with 24 on the roster, is very diverse with athletes from across the globe,” Ortega said.
His squad has two runners from Afghanistan, two from the Congo and one each from Eritrea, Italy and Japan.
“When they’re in the room, you’ll hear five or six languages,” he said.
Erinn Hill and Janke were side-by-side down the stretch. Hill joked that Wednesday was “my turn” to win.
“We work really well together,” she said of the friendly rivalry between her and Janke. “It’s nice to run together. We’re just good running buddies. We like to take turns winning.”
“The egos get put aside for the GSL,” Ortega said. “I’ve got four strong girls so at any time, they aren’t necessarily going to race each other to the finish line.
“When it gets down to the state race, it’s going to be fun to watch. Erinn will be looking to defend her state title, and Allie’s going to be looking maybe to win her first state cross country title.”
Talent aside, Ortega is continually impressed with the dedication and perseverance his team exhibits.
“It’s one of those rare things when you get a group of girls that commit,” he said. “They run every morning before school. By the time I’m getting to school at 7 a.m., they’re already getting back from a run.”
“I love our girls here,” Erinn Hill said. “It’s awesome to see the bond you can make when you go through so much together.”
Mia Hill, who finished fifth in state last season and 11th in 2016, stressed the team aspect of an individual sport.
“You’re working to score not only individually but as a team, and it’s fun to have people that can cheer you on and work together,” she said.
“This means a lot to every single one of us,” Janke said. “I definitely love track, but track is a lot more individual. You get to cross (country) season and you get to come together as a team and race together.”
Lee, coach of the fourth-ranked LC boys, was emotional after his team captured its elusive title.
“We haven’t had many opportunities to chase that over the years,” he said. “We were close last year, but we’ve certainly been on the opposite end of it with North Central way too many times.
“It was fun to flip the roles there a little bit.”
Smith, a junior, was 8 seconds ahead of second-place finisher Nathan Carter of NC.
“Things are clicking for (Smith) like they should be for kids that work as hard as he does and do everything right,” Lee said. “It was great to see.”
Smith said everything went according to plan.
“Our team packed up pretty well in the beginning,” Smith said. “We held up pretty well throughout the whole race.”
Smith said he drew upon a history lesson preparing for the race.
“I remember being in seventh and eighth grade and being inspired by all the top guns here in Spokane, like John Dressel and Tanner Anderson. I fell like what we’re doing is helping to continue that legacy in Spokane.”
He said the experience he gains in the GSL helps at the larger events.
“I think we all have a lot of pride going into the state (level) meets,” he said. “I think the top runners from Spokane always expect to be in the top spots at state. It helps a lot to compete at that level against these guys all the time.”
Lee reiterated his opinion that the GSL is the toughest cross country league in the state.
“Getting the state title is great, but it proved to be tougher to get the GSL title last year. It’s just really special to get that today.”