Can the Woodburn boys cross country team catch lightning in a bottle two years in a row? That's what head coach Carlos Menezes would like to see as he prepares the Bulldogs for a repeat trip to the 5A State Championships this November.
Last year's team was a virtual unknown in the Mid-Willamette Conference standings. Heading into the district championships in Lebanon, the Bulldogs had little expectations other than doing their best, ending the season with a few personal records and hopefully sending their top runner — Geovani Bravo — to state as an individual.
"We entered district as the lowest-ranked team last year," Menezes said.
At the end of the race, the Bulldogs knew they did reasonably well. Bravo finished fourth overall and was bound for state. The rest of the top five — Gustavo Lopez, Philip LaDuca, Koen Howell and Uriel Cruz — finished strong, with the latter three recording personal records. But in the scrum of the race, with dozens of runners finishing within strides of each other, it's impossible to tell in the moment which teams finished where in the standings.
That information is saved for the post-race announcements, as teams gather around to hear the final league standings and determine which top three teams qualified for the state championships. As the announcer read off the results, starting from last place, the Woodburn boys were excited to hear South Albany's name first.
"When they announced eighth place, and we're like 'We're not last?!" Menezes said. "We even surprised ourselves."
After South Albany came Dallas, then Lebanon and Corvallis. With each passing name, the mix of excitement and incredulity from the Woodburn team continued to grow. When the Central Panthers were announced as the fourth-place team, the Bulldog runners looked at each other for half a beat before erupting into celebration.
"That was such a cool moment," Menezes said. "We're standing there, no expectations, and looking at each other like, 'What? ... We're going to state!"
It was a longtime goal realized for Menezes, who took over the program in 2014, and the first trip to state as a team for the Woodburn boys since 2011 when the Bulldogs finished second in the league standings.
With another year of distance running set to begin next week, the goal is the same: qualify for state.
"The only difference this year is that we're not a surprise anymore like it was last year," Menezes said.
Woodburn's last qualified back-to-back teams in 2010 and 2011 were led by 2011 district champion Juve Guzman, who now coaches distance running in Woodburn at the middle school level.
With Bravo returning for his junior year, the Bulldogs bring back one of the top runners in the conference and a legitimate contender for the program's first district champion since Guzman.
"I think he is very hungry," Menezes said. "He is very focused. He is ready to train hard, but he always is."
Bravo finished his first year of cross country with the Bulldogs with a 20th-place finish at the state championships. Of the three people who finished ahead of him in the district race — Ian Vickstrom of Corvallis, Trevor Cross of Dallas and Hosea Catterall of Silverton — Bravo finished ahead of them all at state.
"He is just a competitor," Menezes said. "When he showed up here, he was very determined. He was like, 'How fast do I have to run?'"
Behind Bravo, the Bulldogs have one of the strongest returning classes of runners in the conference. The team will miss the Lopez, who graduated in the spring, but the rest of the team's scoring runners return. LaDuca, Howell and Cruz all finished within one second of each other at districts last year, placing 23rd, 24th and 25th, respectively. With another year, the three could conceivably move into the top 20, which would give the Bulldogs an opportunity to not just qualify for state, but bring home an elusive district championship.
But that depends on who the team can bring out as its fifth scoring runner. Menezes is excited about incoming freshman William Peterson and junior Cezar Torres, and he will likely tap several players from the soccer team — including his sophomore son Riley — to help the team in races that don't conflict with the fall soccer schedule.
Woodburn will open the season with a pair of nearby races, beginning with the Saxon Invite on Saturday, hosted by South Salem High School at Bush Pasture Park in Salem. The Bulldogs will then travel to Silver Falls State Park on Sept. 13 for the annual Oktoberfest Invitational hosted by the Silverton and Kennedy cross country programs.
Woodburn boys cross country
Coach: Carlos Menezes
2016: 3rd place at District Championships, 12th place at State Championships
Key losses: Gustavo Lopez (53rd at State, 13th at Districts)
Key returners: Geovani Bravo, Jr. (20th at State, 4th at Districts); Koen Howell, Sr. (76th at State, 24th at Districts); Philip LaDuca (79th at State, 23rd at Districts); Uriel Cruz (87th at State, 25th at Districts)