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Lions run amok at Tillamook

The way things are headed, it won't be long until both of West Linn's cross-country teams are ranked in the top 10 in state.

After finishing second last week against a strong field in the Tillamook Invitational, the West Linn boys team is now ranked No. 13 in the state. It's not quite a top-10 ranking, but that might not be too far off.

'They will be soon,' West Linn coach Scott Spear predicted. 'Half the (voters) don't even know they were that close (at Tillamook).'

Then there's the West Linn girls team, which took third at Tillamook and is ranked No. 8 in the state. Once the boys make into the top 10, it will mark the first time that both West Linn teams have been ranked at the same time since the 2001 season, Spear said.

Of course, the girls team has been that good for a while, but the boys have struggled a bit over the last two or three years. If the Tillamook meet is any indication, this could be a season to remember for the boys.

During those tough times, the Lions always had one or two runners who were among the best in the league. In that regard, this season is no different than before with Ben Morrow and Michael Bernert leading the way. Morrow finished third at last week's race while Bernert was 12th.

But the team's other five varsity racers are more than holding their own. In the Tillamook meet, which featured a field of 125 competitors, West Linn placed seven runners among the top 33.

After Morrow's fast time of 16:39, the other six West Linn racers were within 52 seconds of each other. The five runners behind Bernert included Charlie Lammers, Neil Rajput, Taylor Kolasinski, Brandon LaDick and Harrison Ko.

Their efforts allowed West Linn to finish 40 points ahead of third-place Sunset, a highly-respected team from the Metro League. Behind Sunset was Grant, which is ranked ninth in the state. Only Forest Grove, the No. 8 team, finished better than West Linn.

'They feel like their hard work is finally paying off,' Spear said of his boys team. 'I think they also got tired of not being competitive.'

Considering the caliber of the field West Linn was competing against, few people probably gave the Lions much of a chance of doing anything in last Thursday's race.

'No one was expecting anything from them,' the coach admitted. 'But it really wasn't that surprising to us. They kind of showed their stuff at the Hood To Coast (relay).

'We definitely had the second-best group (at Tillamook) … and we were within sight of Forest Grove,' Spear added.

After that impressive showing at Tillamook, the West Linn boys then received an invitation to run in the most competitive race in the New Balance Invitational this Saturday at Western Oregon University. In recent years, the West Linn boys have been relegated to the 'B' race, simply because so many quality teams were in the 'A' race. Now, they'll get to show what they can do on a bigger stage.

'That was nice,' Spear said of the improved invite. 'And I expect them to step right up to that challenge.'

Spear said this is the best boys team at West Linn since 2000-01 year, when the Lions won the league dual-meet title. Unfortunately, that team finished third at the district meet, although only one point out of first, after the team's No. 2 runner was sidelined with an injury.

Could this be an even better year for the Lion boys?

'I just want them to race to the best of their ability,' the coach said.

The girls team, meanwhile, finished third at Tillamook. They won the same meet last year but this year's field was much tougher than ever before.

'We had a little bit of a lackluster day,' Spear said of the girls team. 'We didn't race the best we could. But it wasn't bad.'

Sunset, which is ranked third in the state, won the meet while No. 11 St. Mary's was second. West Linn, the No. 8 team, was 24 points behind St. Mary's.

The Lion girls might have been close to the top if Whitney Harmon, the fourth-place finisher at last year's district meet, had been able to run at Tillamook.

'Whitney is a key part of our team,' Spear said. 'You need to have her there.'

The Lions were led by sophomore Taylor Nowlin, who finished fourth with a time of 19:41. Next in line for the Lions were Kelsey Gerner in 17th, Rachel Seigneur in 21st, Natalie Pittenger in 27th, Diana Crane in 28th, Kristi Pace in 39th and Katie Crane in 55th.

Last year's girls team set the bar so high for themselves that very few of the team's runners were able to challenge their career-best times at the Tillamook race. Ideally, Spear would like to see those marks fall at the end of the season, when it will mean the most.

First up, though, is the New Balance meet on Saturday. Then, next Wednesday, West Linn will compete in a three-way league dual meet against Putnam and Milwaukie. There's little question that the Lions will be tested more at Saturday's meet, which will draw several of the top teams in the state.

'We're going to race our brains out on Saturday and give whatever's left on Wednesday,' the coach said.