PORT ORCHARD — In the cross country world — much like in the sport of running itself — it’s not how you start, but how you finish.
While early season meets are a good barometer to see where teams and individuals stand, coaches always want their runners at their best when it’s time to decide league, district and state-wide winners in the late fall.
“It’s what you do in late October and early November that counts,” said South Kitsap head coach Ed Santos.
But if the early returns are any indication of future performance, the South Kitsap boys and girls cross country teams should be in for a successful season after good finishes at the Ash Creek XC Festival in Oregon, the South Puget Sound League 4A Preview Meet, and most recently, the Bellevue Invitational.
And coaches across the state have taken notice of the early success — in the latest Washington State Cross Country Coaches Poll, the South Kitsap girls are ranked sixth in the state in the 4A classification.
“To get third on Saturday at the Bellevue Invitational was a very big deal,” Santos said of his girls team.
“They’re running well, they’re a tight, cohesive group. Every one is moving in the right direction.”
The action kicked off Sept. 9 on the campus of Western Oregon University, where South Kitsap ran against some of Oregon’s top teams, including Jesuit High School of Portland, which is nationally ranked and finished first in both the boys and girls varsity races.
South Kitsap took fourth thanks to strong runs by juniors Kristina Ihlen (20:21.73) Paxton DePoe (21:03.24) and Casandra Hebert (21:05.05), all of whom finished in the top 50.
The boys were led by junior Zach Grams (16:59.27), sophomore Jacob Laws (17:06.01) and junior Shawn Clough (17:24.34) as they finished in seventh.
“They’re on schedule to run really fast and I’m really excited,” said the head coach about the boys team.
“And we have some kids that are in new roles, much more high pressure roles than in the past. Going from junior varsity to varsity is a pretty big step up at 4A, so I’m very encouraged. I’m very pleased with their progress.”
The girls team has also received an unexpected boost from freshman Evelyn Collins-Winn. Her time of 20:32.20 at the SPSL Preview Meet on Sept. 14 gave her a sixth place finish, just ahead of teammate Ihlen (20:32.60). DePoe (20:42.60), freshman Emma Orser (21:05.70), juniors Eugenia Palko (21:09.40) and Cassandra Hebert (21:09.90) all finished in the top 15, allowing South Kitsap to edge out Curtis and Emerald Ridge for the top spot at the meet.
“There’s still a long way to go,” said Santos.
“Bellarmine finished fourth at the preview meet, but they won’t be fourth in a month. That team always runs great at the end of the season.
The boys team also finished well at the meet, taking home fourth place, led by Grams (16:46.90) and Laws (17:10.80). But Clough (17:16.10), Kevin McDermott (17:47.30) and Jacob Simon (18:15.80) have all posted improving times as the season has gone on.
“Zach and Jacob have been consistent as our number one and number two,” said Santos. “But there are five or six guys behind them competing hard for the other spots.”
At the Bellevue Invitational on Sept. 23, the girls took home third place with Collins-Winn (19:45.10) and Ihlen (20:02.60) serving as the top two runners for South Kitsap. DePoe finished in seventh for the No. 3 and No. 4 race with a time of 19:39.20, jumping nearly a full minute from the SPSL Preview.
On the boys side, Grams (16:26.90) and Laws (16:33.70) also improved over their performances at the SPSL meet, as did Simon (17:56.40), who along with Clough (17:19.60) ran as the No. 3 and 4 runners for the boys.
Looking ahead, South Kitsap had a home meet with Emerald Ridge and Sumner, which took place after press deadline for the Independent. After that is another big meet at Lakewood High School — the Nike Hole in the Wall Invitational on Oct. 7, which will be another opportunity to run against top-notch schools.
“Issaquah and Camas will be there, they’re the top two on girls side,” said Santos.
“This will be a race where we’ll turn them loose a little bit. For a lot of the races, we have had pretty concrete race plans, and in this one, we’re getting after it.”
From there, the SPSL 4A Championships will take place on Oct. 19, followed by districts on Oct. 28 and the state meet on Nov. 4. Both the head coach and his runners have high expectations for the postseason.
“The goal for the girls is to place high at the state meet,” said Santos.
The boys haven’t made it since 2004, so they’re pretty excited because I think they have a very good opportunity to make it as well. That’s where we are.”
— Mark Krulish is a reporter for Kitsap News Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.