UNIVERSITY PLACE — As they stepped toward the starting line at Chambers Bay, the Central Kitsap girls cross country team knew they were part of a loaded field.
With Lincoln, Stadium, Woodrow Wilson and Peninsula all vying for the West Central District 3A crown, the South Sound Conference champions had their hands full at the district meet on Oct. 28. They were confident, but aware of the talent surrounding them on all sides.
But thanks to district champion Maya Nichols and top-22 performances from four of its five runners, Central Kitsap took home the district 3A championship, advancing to the state meet on Nov. 4.
“We knew it was going to be down to three or four teams,” Central Kitsap head coach Chris Baldus said. “Stadium was coming in favored, Lincoln was just a few points ahead, and then it was us and Peninsula. We were bouncing around at the 3 or 4 spot. We battled with Peninsula all year long, it’s been tight. We got them at the league meet, so we were confident going into this week.”
Nichols battled Emily Phelps of Fort Vancouver to the finish line, beating her by 2.2 seconds with a time of 18:53.60. They were part of a pack of three along with Meri Dunford of Prairie, that ran together for most of the race. Nichols and Phelps pulled away after about two miles, and the two raced neck-and-neck the rest of the way, but Nichols was able to take the lead at the last hill and turn on the jets as she approached the finish line.
“At that point, I was just going all out,” Nichols said.
But cross country is a team sport and the terrific performances of Central Kitsap’s top five girls runners all helped carry the team to victory.
Molly Fischer took home fourth place with a time of 19:20.40 and Sophia Kohler came in 12th at 20:27.70. Freshman Kara Shepard finished 22nd (20:57.70) and Madeline Shetler was 52nd (22:04.10) to round out the top five.
“We had four in the top 22,” said Baldus. “It’s hard to beat a team when you have four in the top 20, and our five was right there, so it’s a good team effort today. That helped us pick up a couple of close points.”
Not to be outdone, the Central Kitsap boys also had a strong showing, finishing second only to Gig Harbor, which also won the South Sound Conference championship the previous week, also qualifying for the state meet at Sun Willow Golf Course in Pasco.
Once again, Andrew Simon and Jacob Geiser led the way for the boys, finishing ninth (16:47.40) and 11th (16:52.90) respectively.
But the key to the second-place finish was the pack of Ian Nye, Lucas Bertnik and Louis Gannon, who ran together and finished 34th, 35th and 36th respectively. Baldus said the trio started the race at the very back and slowly, but surely, moved up, passing nearly 90 runners in the process.
“The boys, we were a pretty solid second coming in, they raced really hard and really well,” said Baldus. “We came in with a race plan for them. We were trying to make sure we were fresher going into the second half of that race and it worked out well for both sides.”
“Overall, it translated to a lot of season-best races, maybe not season-best times,” he added.