Falcons cross country make history with state win

It was the first time the SWHS boys cross country team finished in first place at the state meet.

For the first time in South Whidbey history, the boys cross country team broke records and finished in first place at the state meet, which took on a different format this year because of the pandemic.

The girls team, not far behind, finished second overall at the same meet.

The boys team, with a final score of 78, had a tight-knit group of four seniors who finished within seconds of each other.

Thomas Simms took 9th (16:53.7), Aidan Donnelly 10th (16:54.1), Cooper Ullmann 11th (16:55.2) and Reilly McVay 12th (16:55.8) out of 131.

In addition, senior Aidan O’Brien placed 36th (17:52.9), junior Drew Larson 51st (18:14.9) and senior Rowan Dickerson 64th (18:34.0). Senior Luc Gandarias placed first in the ambulatory meet and 84th overall in the state meet (19:03.7).

Jamar Distel of Riverside High School was the individual boys champion in 15:12.3.

In 2019, the South Whidbey boys finished fourth at the state meet.

This year was the seventh top 4 state finish for the boys in the team’s history.

Not to be outdone, this year the girls had a final score of 79 at the state meet.

Senior Kaia Swegler-Richmond led the pack with a third-place finish (19:10.4). Freshman Naomi Atwood also placed within the top 20 and tied for 9th place (20:04.3) out of 77.

They were followed by senior Grace Huffman in 22nd place (21:02.5), freshman Audrey Gmerek in 35th (22:04.2), senior Laila Gmerek in 44th (22:42.5), sophomore Ruby Bond in 47th (22:54.8) and freshman Sophia Patrin in 48th (22:55.7).

Lara Carrion of Seton Catholic High School was the individual girls champion in 18:25.7.

The South Whidbey girls finished eighth at the state meet in 2019.

In the team’s history, this year’s performance was the 14th top four state finish and 23rd top eight state finish for the girls.

Instead of going to Pasco, where the state cross country meet usually takes place, the meet followed a virtual format that was sanctioned by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association and sponsored by the Washington State Cross Country Coaches Association.

All teams completed a 5K race on their own tracks, which equates to about 12.5 laps. Teams had a timeframe from the end of February to the end of April to run the meet.

The Falcons ran their meet at the end of March.

Coach Doug Fulton acknowledged that the track was a different sort of terrain for runners accustomed to running up hills and on a range of different materials.

“It certainly wasn’t the same state experience that the kids are used to, but it really did provide a meaningful conclusion to the runners’ seasons and/or careers,” he said.

The Falcons’ season began on Feb. 15. Due to COVID-19, the WIAA pushed cross country — which is usually a fall sport — to a late start.

“We really didn’t know what to expect this year,” Fulton said. “We lost some key runners but the young kids came in and did a great job.”

The top honors do not come as a surprise to many of the student athletes who competed this year.

McVay, who is part of the group of seniors who finished in the top 20, said the boys have been running cross country together since seventh grade. The best friends kept the tradition going in high school.

“It was just a way for all of us to have fun and get together at first but as the years went by, we realized that we were actually capable of winning, but I never really thought of winning state until sophomore year,” McVay said.

“I knew that we were going to be successful this year, but I knew the race for the state title was going to be close, so it was definitely a nice surprise,” he added.

Huffman said the whole team has worked really hard through the stress of navigating “a new world.”

“We knew the season would be different, so we all just accepted it and did our best despite everything,” she said. “And it paid off!”

Although he is a senior, Gandarias said he believes the future is bright for the Falcons.

“For myself, I am most proud of my state race,” he said. “It was the culmination of all the training I’ve put in over the past year, and I felt that the results were phenomenal.”

“I am so incredibly proud of my teammates,” he added. “All the members of the varsity team have been training since last June with almost no breaks or rest days, and it paid off dividends on their state run.”