Coaches will tell you, team comes first in cross country

Tim Martinez: High Schools

By Tim Martinez, Columbian Assistant sports editor

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I had an interesting conversation with someone as the District IV cross country championship meet on a beautiful fall Saturday at Lewisville Park.

This person was lamenting the fact that a local athlete had nearly missed qualifying for Saturday’s state meet in Pasco.

And it was suggested that perhaps cross country would be better if it qualified athletes to state the way golfers qualify for state.

Of all the “individual” high school sports, most do not qualify entire teams to the state championship. It’s just not feasible to send entire teams to state in sports like track and field, wrestling and swimming because those teams are simply too big. Even tennis teams don’t go to state as teams.

But other “individual” sports make an effort to send teams to state ­— cross country, bowling and gymnastics.

Golf is one of the sports in which it’s possible to send teams to state. But in Washington, they choose not to send teams. In Oregon, teams do qualify to state.

Now the argument that this person at the cross country meet was trying to make is this: Why should a runner who finishes 17th in the district not go to the state meet, but a runner who finishes 28th get to go to state simply because the latter runner’s team qualified for state and the former’s did not? Shouldn’t your best runners get the berths to state?

I understand the argument, but I still disagree with it.

My response is this: Cross country is a team sport.

To someone who is not familiar with cross country, that statement may sound odd. If you look at a cross country meet, you’ll see seven runners out on the course each trying to run his or her best.

You don’t see one runner physically helping another teammate. They can’t push their teammate, can’t carry their teammates. They can’t run interference with runners from other teams or body-check opponents into the blackberry bushes (although that may be interesting to watch).

So how is it a team sport?

It’s a team sports because it’s a concept every cross country coach tries to instill in his or her runners — team first.

You wouldn’t expect a basketball player to be happy after scoring 50 points in a game if his team lost 90-65.

Cross country runners feel the same way.

Camas’ Andrew Kaler was upset with how he ran in Saturday’s regional meet in Tacoma, coming in about 45 seconds slower than expected. But according to coach Mike Hickey, Kaler was most upset with how his performance would impact his team’s score.

As it turned out, Kaler’s teammates picked him up and the Papermakers still easily won the team title.

In the same meet, Columbia River coach David Cummings trumpeted the performance of his boys team, which had a 27-second spread between his team’s No. 1 and No. 6 runner.

“Awesome pack running,” Cummings said.

Good cross country runners train as a team. They warm up as a team, and they cool down as a team. And if they’re really good, they run as a team in meets.

“At the start of every race, we talk about two things,” said Megan Napier of the second-ranked Camas girls team. “We want to run together as a team, and we want every runner to have a good day on the same day. If we can do that, we’ll have a good meet.”

It’s a recipe the Papermakers will be aiming for Saturday at the state cross country championship at Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco.

If the Papermaker girls run as a team on Saturday, they could knock off No. 1 Glacier Peak of Snohomish for the state title.

And it would be a true team championship, not like the ones they often hand out in golf.

In golf, a school can win a team championship based on the performances of as few as two golfers. Now the more golfers a team can qualify for state, the better their chances are to win a team title.

But if a team can get two golfers to place very, very high at state, it can win the team title.

Well, I’m sorry, but two golfers does not make a team.

I would rather see entire teams advancing to state. Instead of a district sending its best 10 golfers to state, I’d rather see districts sending its best team, plus its next best five golfers.

State championships are about determining state champions. It should not be about providing an opportunity for someone to say they went to state and placed 58th.

Going to state as an individual is special. Going to state as part of a team is even more memorable.

So, this weekend we celebrate the seasons of several cross country teams: the Camas boys and girls, Union boys and girls, Battle Ground boys, Columbia River boys, Prairie girls, Hockinson girls, La Center boys and girls and Seton Catholic boys.

Go teams.

Tim Martinez is the assistant sports editor/prep coordinator for The Columbian. He can be reached at (360) 735-4538 or email at tim.martinez@columbian.com