Greatness gathered at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff as state champs, national title-holders and pro runners converged at the Peaks Cross Country Invitational to kick off the start of the cross country season.
Running the trails before the NCAA Division I champs, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, started their season with the George Kyte Classic, the local high schools demonstrated why they are all a threat to continue leading the way in Arizona long-distance running.
Three-time individual Division IV state champion Maya Smith of Northland Prep Academy broke 19 minutes with a time of 18:55.3 to win the 5K Ascent race and set a new meet record; the Flagstaff Eagles boys and girls started their race toward three straight D-II state titles with Peaks gold finishes; and Coconino continued to show its growth with a fifth-place team finish on the girls side.
Flagstaff Eagles head coach Trina Painter said the sport of running is growing and it's growing fast in Flagstaff.
“We get excited about this meet and the quality of teams that were present. Again, I say this every year, but distance running in general is rising, and in high schools and in the United States it’s catching fire," Painter said. "More people are seeing that, seeing our superstars out there, at the Olympic Games, and more kids are interested. Kids are trying hard, and we see that with faster, bigger performances early in the season. What Maya Smith did today was incredible.”
Smith, who finished the race last season in 20:27.0 for first, enters her senior year looking to win her fourth individual title to complete the varsity state sweep. Her team, the Spartans, which won as teams on both the girls and boys sides Saturday in the Ascent races, is hoping to garner a third team girls state title in a four-year span.
Led by first-place Summit 5K race finisher Maddy Christopher and her 20:44.1 time, the Eagles girls dominated Saturday. Flagstaff's girls ended the day with just 28 points, as runner-up Mountain Ridge posted 103 and bronze team Salpointe Catholic notched 118.
A flood of green Flagstaff jerseys highlighted the finishing stretch and took over the top 10. Brianna White took third in 21:08.1, Chloe Painter crossed in sixth in 21:17.8 and Povi Plank went eighth in 21:23.9 as Flagstaff put four in the top 10.
Asked if he would bet on both the Flagstaff girls and boys to three-peat as state champs this season, Mike Smith, Northern Arizona's director of cross country and track and field, said he'd feel confident putting money on the Eagles.
“I am always going with Flag High," said Smith, who ran some of his best talents later in the day, an uncommon exercise in the past. "They are well-prepared, they got great coaching, I think they can do it for sure.”
Led by Wren Cooperrider's 17:59.8 and eighth-place finish, the Flagstaff boys had 79 points for the gold, with Page garnering silver in the Summit race with 123 points and Mountain Ridge going third with 144 points. Flynn Fuhrmann was the second Eagle to cross the line, stopping his clock at 18:16.4, and teammates Corey Blubaum (16th) and Alan Hagerman (19th) finished in the top 20.
PANTHERS TO POUNCE?
Coconino, with first-year head coach Shannon Taylor, saw her girls team, which finished as D-III runner-ups at the 2016 state meet, take fifth as a team Saturday. Last year, the Panthers girls squad finished the Peaks Summit race in ninth place.
The majority of the Coconino girls return this season, led by Woodlyn Smith, who took fifth Saturday in 21:15.8, Hope Saxton and Kaelynn Ashley.
Now, Taylor, who spent two years as an assistant coach under Andrew Benford, wants to see who on the team will step up to fill out the rest of the best seven for the team.
"We still have a couple of months to see who can move up," Taylor said. "I think they all ran exceptionally today."
Two of the Panthers girls fell at the start of the Summit race, getting tied up in a tangle of runners who went down just after the gun. The girls race, in fact, had to have a re-start.
Sam Lasley paced the Coconino boys, who finished in eighth as a team, with a 26th-place finish and an 18:49.5 time.
Like the Coconino girls, the Flagstaff boys and girls will return a majority of last season's title-winning crew to the squads.
Painter likes what she sees, but isn't ready to say her program has created a legacy just yet.
“I think they are establishing a strong tradition here, the boys and girls teams. I think legacies are born with the Hopis' 27 state titles, so we are not at legacy status yet but we’ve got a streak going and we are focused on this being a clean slate,” Painter said, adding her seniors want to make the best out of their final year and ride off into the sunset with another title.
NORTHLAND PREP A THREAT
The Spartans girls have three strong seniors this season, and they showed their strengths on Saturday in the Ascent, small school races.
In addition to Smith, Nora Blodgett and Keelah Barger, who raced her first-ever cross country race with the Spartans on Saturday after moving over from soccer, are the upperclassmen looking to get the repeat state title.
Barger opener her career with a second-place finish and a time of 20:44.5, while Blodgett clocked a 22:12.4 for seventh, helping the girls take first with 47 points. Claire Gibson also decided to join cross country this season.
"Just to see that the kids are so fit right now, training so well. I am trying to keep the lid on it," said Spartans head coach Missy Acker. "And our boys ran just as well."
The Spartans boys took first as a team Saturday thanks to a tight pack that recorded a 2-3-4 finish. Brandon Bounds was the first Spartan to finish Saturday, getting a 17:57.0. Taking third place, Nalzheii Lonetree timed a 17:58 finish, while Nicholas Hall got fourth with 18:08.4.
"We are finally getting enough talent that our boys are running in great packs," Acker said.
So much great running awaits the season, and NAZ Elite pro running team head coach Ben Rosario says Buffalo Park is a great early-season event to get people in the long-distance mood.
"A lot of running knowledge floating around up here," he said. "You get a pretty high coaching level up here in Flag at the high school level."