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PREP FOCUS: PIL runners star in cross-country

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Cleveland High's Emma Wren (left) and Franklin's Margarita Lauer lead early in last week's PIL 5A district girls meet at Franklin. Wren went on to win, with the Warriors capturing the team title, as well. Runner-up Oliva Stein of Wilson (third from left) led the Trojans to second in the team standings.Cross-country meets are some of the most entertaining, pure high school sporting events to cover.

No one is getting a concussion from a helmet-to-helmet hit that often goes without penalty.

No one is dunking on an opponent and posing for the cameras under the basket.

Instead, cross-country meets usually are filled with individual stories of young man or woman against their toughest opponent — themselves — as they reach deep for the guts it takes to go a little faster than they have gone before.

People cheer for them — all the runners — and, with of course certain exceptions, the playing field in cross-country tends to be more level than in other sports, where a host of factors make thinking that schools are more or less equal based on adjusted enrollment is akin to believing that Santa Claus delivers the same gifts to every household.

This year's district cross-country meets didn't fail to produce individual and collective stories of athletes rising and falling — and mostly rising.

Here are some highlights from the action last week involving PIL teams and individuals at the Class 6A and 5A levels:

• Cleveland's boys and girls both won team titles again at the PIL 5A meet at Franklin, and the up-and-coming Benson boys and Wilson girls took second place, also qualifying for Saturday's state meet in Eugene.

It's the first time since 1990 that the Wilson girls have made it to state.

The Cleveland boys scored 39 points at district, comfortably ahead of Benson's 53, with Wilson and Franklin tying for third with 62.

The Cleveland girls finished with 41 points, nipping Wilson (46) and Franklin (47) in a meet that was as tight as expected.

Cleveland coach Anthony Cantwell breathed both a sigh of relief and pride, saying he felt "overall, we exceeded expectations. Coming into the season, we realized the league was greatly improved."

In September, Cantwell said he considered "Franklin and Wilson as teams capable of taking the district (boys) title from us" and that the Warriors girls were "hoping to defend our title, but we expect a serious challenge from Franklin."

The challenge for the Warriors, he said after the district meet, "was to bring the kids together as they balance academics, extracurricular activities and other sports. This is a talented group of young people, and going into the meet the girls were slight favorites, the boys underdogs."

Cleveland junior Nabi Amin won the boys race in 16 minutes, 30 seconds, with Benson sophomore Ollie Tuffa (16:40) placing second, two seconds ahead of Benson senior Jonathon Zacarias and Wilson junior Jack Howard.

Junior Emma Wren captured her second consecutive league girls title, finishing in 18:52, 17 seconds ahead of the runner-up, Wilson junior Olivia Stein.

"In both races, we had a plan we wanted to try to execute," Cantwell said. "I told the kids they were the defending champs and that the other teams would try to take it from them.

"Emma was the clear girls favorite, so we tried to test the girls from Wilson and Franklin. Her plan was to run up the hills hard enough to weaken the field, then gap the girls at two miles, and run up and away from any survivors on the last hill, about 1,200 meters from the finish.

"The rest of our girls ran really well, with (senior) Emilie Winn (seventh in 20:03) and (senior) Bryn McKillop (sixth, 19:43) in the lead pack most of the way. Emily ran her best race of the season.

"It was what we call a ponytail race, with all the girls trying to keep the pack as close as possible and get our top five in before the other teams."

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - The PIL 5A boys cross-country district meet is off and running, with Cleveland's Alex Nova (190) and Nabi Amin (164) taking the lead. Amin finished first, and the Warriors were first as a team.Amin, who was second the previous year, became the clear favorite in the boys race when Madison senior Ian Stevens suffered a foot fracture at the Nike Pre-Nationals.

"His plan was the same as Emma's, but I was worried when he took the lead and was being followed by a huge pack at the 1,000-meter mark," Cantwell said. "I actually told him to slow down and let the pack catch him.

"He is a great hill runner, and he broke away on the hills with (Cleveland senior) Alex Nova (sixth in 16:46). Alex joined the football team a month ago and really hadn't practiced with us much since then. He helped Nabi win the race."

The Warriors' No. 2 finisher was junior Roba Sultessa, who took fifth in 16:45 despite having sprained an ankle two weeks before district.

• Benson's boys pretty much put it all together this season.

Coach Isiah Clark had an inkling in September, when he said the Techmen "had a good summer of training, and I think we might surprise some people." Clark also noted that Tuffa was "a star waiting to happen."

Going into the district meet, "our goal was to make it to state," Clark said. "We were fortunate to stay healthy this season, as we only have seven varsity runners. We knew what we had to do at district, and we ran good enough to qualify for state."

In addition to Tuffa and Zacarias, Clark commended senior Daniel Soriano, who placed 11th in 16:55 and was Benson's third scorer.

"They are the leaders on this team," Clark said.

• The Wilson girls took advantage of what coach Thor Esbensen called "a tremendous turnout" -- as the Trojans welcomed 145 runners to the overall cross-country program this season.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Wilson's Olivia Stein heads for home on the track at Franklin, en route to her second-place finish in the PIL 5A district girls cross-country meet.Stein lowered her district time by 2:42.

"She made some great strides last track season, but she really excelled this fall, after a great summer training session," Esbensen said.

Only two places behind Stein at district was teammate Sydney Brieher, a freshman whose time was 19:25, eight seconds behind Franklin senior Margarita Lauer.

"We were really blessed to have Sydney join the team this year," Esbensen said. "She had never run competitively and initially joined to develop some fitness. She ran on athleticism and competitiveness for most of the year."

Esbensen said the team also "benefited from new runners Alina Nussbaum, Dana Nathanson, Shea Sims and Kendra Zimmerdahl."

The Wilson girls "were extremely coachable and worked really hard for one another," he added. "We've been working really hard to get to the next level, competitively, and this was a big step for our women's program. It will mean a lot moving forward and having the younger athletes see the benefits of hard work and dedicated training."

• As for state, Cantwell said he sees Wren as a high finisher in the 5A girls race at Lane Community College and hopes that both she and Amin can come away in the top five.

"Our team goal is to finish in the top four in both boys and girls and bring home two trophies," Cantwell said, "but we are thin and depend on our top five (individuals) more than other teams."

Clark said Benson's boys have adjusted their sights and are shooting for a top-five finish.'

• In the 6A Three Rivers League district meet, Grant's defending state champion girls advanced to state with 29 points, easily ahead of runner-up Clackamas (61).

by: VERN UYETAKE/PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - Grant's girls claimed the Three Rivers League district meet handily behind top runners Piper and Ella Donaghu.The Generals have had some injury problems, but they still project as a top contender this weekend, with sophomore Ella Donaghu considered the clear individual favorite. She was fourth as a freshman.

Senior Piper Donaghu ran second to Ella at district and looks to improve on her 11th-place showing at state in 2012.

The Grant boys were a big story at the Three Rivers Meet, as well. They came through with the team title with 44 points, beating runner-up West Linn by six.

Junior Henry Houghton was Grant's top finisher, placing third in 16:35.44.

"The consummate team player," Grant coach Doug Winn said. "His work ethic is legendary. He leads by example while inspiring the rest of our boys team by his rapid improvement through the varsity ranks."

Houghton dove into summer training with the goal of breaking 17 minutes, "and his consistent dedication has brought him to a level much better than that," Winn said.

Grant had five other boys in the top 14 at district, with junior Eli Boudouris sixth, senior Jackson Cole 10th, junior Jacob Silberger-Franek 12th, senior George Grenham 13th and senior Gabe Kearns 14th.

"Our boys team is the most united we've had in some time," Winn said. "They quietly take care of business each time they compete. We had an inkling early in the season that they are a special group, when they won the Ultimook Invitational (Sept. 7 in Tillamook). From that time forward, they have progressed into a strong steam that's beginning to earn some respect."

• Lincoln's boys also won a district meet. The Cardinals captured the Metro League district race with 46 points, knocking off strong challengers in Aloha (50), Jesuit (52) and Sunset (71).

Lincoln senior Liam Burke took fifth in 16:06.62, and Cardinals junior Ronald Graham was sixth in 16:09.75.

Burke's race was a testament to his ability to come back from injuries that had limited his performances since early September.

Burke played football his first two years at Lincoln, then took up running. He was the cross-country team's No. 3 man most of last fall.

"He's very gifted at the longer distances," Lincoln coach Suzanne Parry said,. "He ran a 1:10:48 half-marathon last July (5:24 per mile). This year, he fully expected to be running (cross-country) in the 15s, but his injury (post-tibular tendonitis) kept him from running much. He did extensive swimming to stay in cardiovascular shape while the tendonitis healed.

"He ran only three workouts and one race between Sept. 12 and the Metro League district meet, so his performance was truly fantastic. An amazing comeback."

It takes depth to win a cross-country meet, though, and Lincoln found that, too.

"Ronnie Graham, Ransom Gravatt and Gabe Collins have been running consistently well all season," Parry said, "All three improved substantially over their performances last season."

And another key at district was the efforts of Lincoln's No. 5 man, Coby Eastwood, a senior who placed 13th.

"Along with Ransom, he passed three Aloha runners with 500 meters to go to seal the win," Parry said.

The Cardinals were a surprise to some, if not many.

"Although perhaps some outside of the Metro League were surprised by our victory, we knew going in that it would be a mini-state meet, with Aloha, Jesuit and Sunset all very talented," Parry said. "Everyone did their job for us, and we came out on top."