Trina Painter had some tough decisions to make as the cross country state meet loomed.
Her boys and girls squads were deep with talent, and the runners had been battling for top spots all season long. Even on the morning of the state meet at Cave Creek Golf Course in north Phoenix, the coach put the team through warmups just make sure the best seven from each side were ready to go, were in full form.
The picks paid off. The Eagles girls won their third straight state title in dominant fashion, scoring just 49 points to win the Division II championship. The boys followed suit, recording 127 points on the way to their own three-peat.
The boys, who lacked their lead runner from a year ago, placed four runners in the top 30, with six of the seven crossing the finish line in a 45-second team spread. The girls clocked a 47-second spread between their first and fifth finishers, and placed six in the top 25.
The tight packs led to more than just titles. Flagstaff's girls squad was the fastest in the entire state out of the combined 90 programs that competed. Meanwhile, the boys group was the fourth-fastest team overall out of 106 total schools.
"At the end it was about confidence and working together," Painter said.
Peyton Sventek, Wren Cooperrider and Davis Boggess all ran together as freshmen in the 2014 state meet when the team finished fourth. Boggess, who took fourth place as individual last season at the state meet to lead his team, missed the season with injury.
Sventek said it was difficult knowing that the lead runner from a year ago wouldn't be able to train with the team. As the season went on, however, the guys became less wary of the absence in the pack and began embracing Boggess' new role as a leader on the sidelines.
“It wasn’t like he was completely erased -- he was still there, and he was a good motivator during the season," Sventek said.
Continuity and camaraderie are two things Sventek ascribed to the team's success. A good mix can go a long way in distance running. For instance, the Page Sand Devils boys squad came away from the state meet with their fourth consecutive D-III title, as their key competitors from the last three years helped the team end up as the second-fastest squad in the entire state.
Despite the season's results, earning three straight titles on both sides was a grind for Flagstaff. The Eagles girls and boys won all three local events at Buffalo Park this season. Both squads took gold at the Payson meet early in the season, with Povi Plank winning the individual title on the girls side and the boys placing second through seventh as a tight group of green jerseys.
At the Nike Portland meet in at the Portland Meadows Race Track in Oregon on Sept. 30, the Eagles boys finished third in the 5,000-meter D-I event, and the girls went second. Blowing away the field for a title as four runners placed in the top five, the girls showed off their speed at the sectional meet at Rose Mofford just a week before state, despite not having sophomore Brianna White, the team's top finisher in the state meet.
"We had to sit several of our top girls and a few boys out this year in some races to be cautious that their aches and pains did not turn into full-blown injuries," Painter said. "We played it very conservative a few times holding kids out of races, knowing what was at stake with the state titles."
The season ended up being a juggling act between training for the next race on the schedule while making sure the end goal of bringing home more hardware remained attainable. While the coach dealt with the obstacles of the season, she made sure not to let the adversity slow down the team. She actually took advice from one of her runners, Angel Curly, who told Painter "skilled sailors are not made on calm seas."
For the Eagles, the season always came down to having fun, even with a third straight title was on the line. The team's continuity bred chemistry, creating a group that was more like a family, and each runner bought into the process Painter laid out for them and even passed it down to the younger runners.
“There is a lot of leadership on this team," said Chloe Painter, who took 10th at the state meet with a time of 19:52.
The seniors knew they couldn't get distracted by past success. They were disciplined enough to keep in mind that each race of the season was crucial. In the end, the day of the state meet ended up being a perfect storm for Flagstaff, which had four seniors on the boys side in the lineup and five for the girls. In addition to the seasoned athletes, the weather and early start time made for favorable conditions for the teams to race so fast.
“We were not expecting to be No. 1 in the entire state; just knowing that we are that fast is incredible. It’s really cool to experience that with everyone," Chloe said.
For Sventek and Chloe, keeping focused was something their head coach stressed for years.
“She’s really good at making a quality group of runners move up and at making the process fun so that you can build a camaraderie, a family that can work well together in running, at school and other parts of life. She gets us to put our best foot forward in cross country, and be as successful as possible," Sventek said.
A TOWN OF TALENT
There was also an aura of greatness in the sport coming from Flagstaff in recent years that the Flagstaff teams fed off. Northland Prep's Maya Smith, who Chloe said is "kind of a legend,” won her fourth straight individual state title at the D-IV level, and the Northern Arizona men's cross country team recently won the NCAA national title for the second year in a row.
Smith took second place at the Nike nationals race in Casa Grande on Saturday in the women's 5,000m with a time of 17:18, four seconds out from gold. Flagstaff sent a bulk of its runners to nationals, with Chloe leading the way on a 39th-place finish in the 5,000m medium school race. Riley Human, who as a sophomore placed 47th at the state meet for Flagstaff, was the first of his teammates to cross, finishing 23rd in 16:37.
The Northland Prep boys rattled the nation when they put an end to the Hopi boys' streak of 27 straight D-IV state titles this year, and were 18th overall as team in all the schools combined. The Coconino girls tallied another second-place finish at states and registered as the ninth-fastest girls squad overall in Arizona.
Building a program into a dynasty took longer for the Flagstaff boys. The girls finished second in 2014 after winning the title in '13, whereas the boys went fourth and 13th those years.
Trina Painter keeps learning new ways to keep the titles coming. She added some races to the schedule to provide more opportunities to the younger runners, changing up race-to-workout schedules.
"From the coaching standpoint, we are trying to develop the younger runners and give them the experience they need to race at the varsity level both this season and next year when we graduate so many seniors," she said.
She's already anticipating making the big decisions for next year.