The last eight weeks' worth of grueling practices and long trips to invitational meets were just a warm-up for the West Linn cross-country team. Now, things will get serious as the Lions' girls varsity team prepares to defend its league title at next Wednesday's district meet at Clackamas Community College.

After being ranked among the state's top 10 most of the season, the Lions appear to be peaking at just the right time. Most of the girls have been steadily improving their times since the beginning of the season, and several of them turned in their best marks during the last week or so.

Leading the way, as she often does, was sophomore Taylor Nowlin. She recorded a season-best time of 19:09 at the Nike/Jim Danner Invitational on Oct. 7. That effort, which was good enough for fourth place in a talent-laden field, was a season PR by 14 seconds.

In previous races, Nowlin has been under instructions from head coach Scott Spear to run more strategically as part of a progressive effort to get ready for districts. But lately, Nowlin has been allowed to open things up a bit and she's been making the most of the opportunity.

That was really evident in last week's dual meet against Lake Oswego and Oregon City. In that meet, Nowlin blew away most of the field and was never really pushed coming down the stretch.

'Her directions were just to run to win,' Spear said of Nowlin, who turned in a winning time of 19:43

Nowlin's time was slower than one might expect because of the slow pace established by some of the other runners. Nowlin stayed with the pack for a while. Then, with a mile to go, she pulled away and left everyone in the dust.

'She just couldn't wait for the last mile,' Spear said.

For most of the season, the other West Linn girls have done a good job of staying close to Nowlin. But now she's starting to widen the gap again with her improved times.

'We're still trying to make it a tighter pack,' Spear said, referring to his season-long goal for his runners. 'But it's hard, because (Nowlin) is getting faster … Now, they've got to catch up a little bit.'

It will be that pack of runners, which includes Kelsey Gerber, Whitney Harmon, Natalie Pittengere and Rachel Seigneur, that will likely determine whether West Linn repeats as league champs next week. They looked good in last week's dual meet as all four members of that pack finished ahead of Lake Oswego's No. 2 runner. When pitted against Oregon City, the Lions had eight runners finish ahead of the Pioneers' No. 2 competitor.

It's probably no coincidence that Spear's team is just now rounding into peak form, espeically since the squad has battled an assortment of illnesses and injuries since the first week of the season.

'It's been tough,' the coach said, 'because we've battled illnesses longer than we ever had to before.'

Fearing that he was beginning to push his luck with team's health, Spear opted to withdraw the Lions from last weekend's Adidas invitational. It was an extra day of rest that everyone needed.

'With the health of the team, it just wasn't worth it (to compete),' the coach said.

The Lions got a good preview of the district meet when they met highly touted Clackamas in a dual meet on Wednesday. Unfortunately, the results from that meet were not available by press time. Spear approached the meet as little more than a warm-up for districts, however a victory would give the Lion girls the outright regular season league title.

'If we get only one title (this season), we'd rather have it be the district title,' Spear said.

The coach said he wouldn't be surprised if most of his girls turn in season-best times next week. That includes a large contingent of JV runners, who have dominated their competition this year.

In fact, the JV squad was so strong last week that West Linn claimed seven of the top nine spots in that race. Leading the way was Shannon Edwards, who was 40 seconds ahead of her closest competitors. Her winning time would have made her one of the top three runners on Oregon City's varsity team this year.

Like the girls varsity, the West Linn boys team has a clear division between its front-runners (Ben Morrow and Michael Bernert) and the rest of the pack, and that helped spell the difference between winning and losing the dual meet with Lake Oswego.

'It was probably the worst race we've had all year,' Spear said of his boys team, which was ranked in the top 10 for a while this season.

Spear was hoping to use Wednesday's meet against Clackamas as a tuneup for the district race. But now, 'we need to use the meet to get a step closer to districts,' the coach said.

Beating Clackamas might be too much to expect, especially since the Cavaliers are widely regarded as the best boys team in the Three Rivers League.

But, the Lions are certainly capable of knocking off Lake Oswego for second place at districts, which would be good enough for a trip to state.

'(The Lions) have had moments of greatness and that's what we're banking on,' Spear said.

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