South Whidbey High School’s girls cross country runners are going to have a hard time sneaking up on anyone this year.
For more than a decade, the team has worn a figurative target on its back as the program has qualified for the state meet 13 years in a row. At last year’s meet in Pasco, the Falcons won a tiebreaker to take second, the team’s highest placing ever.
In the intervening 10 months, the team lost its only true marquis star, senior Karen Schwager, to graduation and has found itself somewhat depleted after two other state meet runners did not return to the team.
But does any of this matter in the preseason coaches poll? Apparently not. The Falcons are returning to competition this fall as a marked squad, ranked second in the 2A division behind Mount Baker. The Falcons spent 2001 in the Mountaineers’ shadow, taking runner-up placings behind them at the North Cascades Conference championship, the district championship and at the state meet.
None of this, however, has done anything to affect the runners’ humility. Julie Gabelein, a fourth-year senior Falcon, said her goal this season is modest — get back to Pasco one more time.
“I want to get to state,” she said.
As if there should be any doubts. Having put in a season of solid training that included three practices a week and a trip to running camp, the Falcon pack is in shape and ready to overwhelm the competition with team strategy. Running tight with Gabelein — whose past results peg her as the team’s leader on the course this season — will be junior Callie Supsinskas, sophomores Becky Gabelein and Nancy Godsey, senior Anna Merrill and Shannon Schrecengost and, possibly, a few of the new Falcon freshmen. With about 15 girls out for the team, the 2002 Falcon lineup will probably be as fluid as that in 2001. Last year, girls moved in and out of varsity spots throughout the season.
As he is every year, team coach Doug Fulton is keeping many of his predictions about his team to himself as the season gets going. The Falcons will be in the running for NCC and Northwest District championships again this year, especially since Mount Baker lost some of its considerable talent to graduation. But how the girls fare at state will depend on how they work as a unit this season, he said. Without any dominating runners — like past runners Leann Hymas or Karen Schwager — to run out front and chase down the leaders, the Falcons need to bring their five scorers across the finish line near the front of the race and in close contact with one another.
“We have to run pretty well as a pack,” he said.
To reach that goal, Fulton and his team will be concentrating on a number of variables that go beyond running. The Falcon girls will practice twice a day and will be expected to do regular workouts in the high school weight room. And, with the help of cross country mom and nutritionalist Denise Perkins, the girls will learn how best to fuel themselves.
Also expected to strengthen the team both physically and mentally is this season’s rigorous meet schedule. In addition to their regular appearances at Yakima’s huge Sunfair Invitational and the Hoquiam Invitational, the Falcons travel to Stanford on Sept. 28 to compete against the best cross country teams in California.