Baxter, Cranny and Efraimson broke free from the pack early, and stayed together through most of the race.
But with about a half-mile to go in the 5,000-meter course, it looked as if a win would elude Efraimson as Baxter and Cranny opened up a 10-meter gap.
Mike Hickey, Efraimson’s personal coach, had his doubts, too, at that moment.
“I closed my eyes with 300 (meters) to go,” Hickey said. “And I thought ‘Oh Lord. OK, that’s the best she’s got.’ … But then I opened my eyes and said I was going to cheer as hard as I can for her. Then all of a sudden she started to move.”
Efraimson said: “I just said to myself ‘You know that kick that you have? Yeah, you should probably start to use that because they were starting to gap me on that little downhill. So I saw them and starting pumping my arms as hard as I could.”
It was a much different race than last year when Baxter won in 19:17 and Efraimson finished fourth on a mud-clogged, sloppy course.
On Saturday, the course was firm as temperatures were in the 20s with a brisk wind.
When asked if she preferred bone-chilling cold or a shoe-sucking mud, Efraimson said there was no debate.
“Bone-chilling cold,” she said. “Even though the ground was hard, it was definitely better than being all muddy. It was cold but I wouldn’t say it affected me too much. I started to feel the cold about a mile-and-a-half into it. But I’m super happy that I wore my gloves and arm warmers.”
Saturday’s race was also different for Efraimson as it was the first time this season, when competing against high school runners, that she wasn’t running all by herself.
“Competition brings the best out in me,” she said. “So having them there, it almost like it makes it easier because it’s like you’re all running together as a team.”
Cranny, a senior, is a two-time Colorado cross country state champion. Baxter, also a senior who will run for Oregon next fall, had never lost a high school race before Saturday.
“It might have been the best high school field as far as the top runners go, ever,” Hickey said. “I just told her ‘Go out and run your best race. You may win. You may not. But go out and run your best race and see where that takes you. And in the end, no one can kick with you.’ “
Efraimson said her focus now is on “taking a nice, two-week break.” But she added that her goal is to reach the World Junior Track and Field Championships, which will be held next July in Eugene, Ore.
“She’s a special kid,” Hickey said. “You can’t coach that kind of heart. That heart that she has, that heart of a champion. … And she’s just enjoying it. I told her ‘don’t let people build this up that it’s too big for you. It’s never too big.’ “