The South Whidbey girls team, center, take off at the start of last year’s state meet. The Falcons, from the left, are Laila Gmerek, Natalie Rodriguez, Grace Huffman, Kaia Swegler Richmond, Jasmin Graner and Flannery Friedman. (Photo by Karen Swegler)

The South Whidbey girls team, center, take off at the start of last year’s state meet. The Falcons, from the left, are Laila Gmerek, Natalie Rodriguez, Grace Huffman, Kaia Swegler Richmond, Jasmin Graner and Flannery Friedman. (Photo by Karen Swegler)

Seniors lead cross country teams through ever-changing season

  • Saturday, December 26, 2020 1:30am
  • Sports

Spurred by deep and talented senior classes, this year’s South Whidbey High School cross country teams are among the strongest 1A clubs in the state.

Being among the best is not unusual for the Falcons. The boys team has qualified for the state meet 18 times and the girls 28. South Whidbey has also medaled (finishing among the top eight) numerous times. An outright state title, however, has been elusive for the Falcons.

The boys tied for first in 2000 but lost the tie-breaker to East Valley. It was that kind of year for South Whidbey, which also tied for the top spot in both the league and district meets but fell in tie-breakers.

The Falcon girls have been tantalizingly close to a state crown, finishing second seven times.

Title Contenders

This school year, both teams, especially the boys, had to be considered legitimate state title contenders. The boys finished fourth and the girls eighth in last year’s state meet, and each team lost just one runner to graduation.

Because of COVID-19, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association canceled state championship tournaments in all sports and condensed all the seasons. It hopes to hold regional championships.

March Start?

If and when South Whidbey will get to run cross country during the 2020-21 school year is still in question.

The WIAA has slotted cross country for Season 3, which starts a seven-week run in March, in the new format outlined for this school year. Season 1 was already canceled and the beginning of Season 2 delayed until February. If COVID-19 numbers don’t improve, further delays and cancelations are a possibility.

Regardless of the moving finish line, the Falcon cross country teams are preparing for the season, and the senior classes form the core of both teams.

Most varsity cross country teams, though often top heavy with upperclassmen, generally have a sprinkling of runners from all four classes — freshmen through seniors — among its top runners. South Whidbey is an exception.

At the boys state meet last year, six of South Whidbey’s top seven runners were juniors: Reilly McVay (who finished 25th), Thomas Simms (27th), Aidan Donnelly (33rd), Cooper Ullmann (35th), Aidan O’Brien (63rd) and Trent Hogarth (81st).

Five of the six girls who competed were juniors: Kaia Swegler Richmond (fifth), Grace Huffman (54th), Jasmin Graner (55th), Natalie Rodriguez (68th) and Laila Gmerek (74th).

Longtime Friends

“The boys have been buddies their whole lives, and they love training and racing with each other and are very competitive amongst themselves,” coach Doug Fulton said. “I knew they would be a special group back when they were freshmen, and they have really matured into exceptional runners as a result of a lot of hard work and dedication to the sport.”

“The girls team has been smaller than in years past, but they are a talented group who love to run,” he added. “Every year the girls seem to get it done and qualify for state.”

Had the fall season not been canceled, the Falcon girls from the class of 2021 would have most likely qualified for their fourth trip in four years.

“Success in cross country is a product of the offseason training you are willing to commit to, and both our teams love to run,” Fulton said.

Ullmann said, “Most of us have known each other since elementary school and have been running together since middle school, so we have a pretty strong bond.”

McVay said, “Our team chemistry has really given us the opportunity to push each other harder because we know we can confidently encourage each other.”

Simms added, “We run at really similar paces, so in workouts we can push each other harder than you normally would yourself.”

O’Brien said, “Hard work and dedication become much easier when your friends are the ones you are competing for and with. This combination of effort and the sheer number of years we all have put in makes us special.”

Swegler Richmond said the girls team mimics the boys: “We work hard and for each other, since we have been running together for so long.”

Outlook

The runners said they are disappointed that the season has been shortened but they are trying to make the best of a difficult situation.

“We don’t know what the season will look like if it happens in March,” Swegler Richmond said. “Since it is so unknown at the moment, I think we all just want to be ready for whatever happens.”

The cancelation of the state meet is a “real tragedy,” O’Brien said. “State would have been a culmination of all the work that the team has put in over the past years, and, now that it is canceled, it feels like we can’t prove how far we can go. But, again, I understand that if experts deem state not to be safe, then things like it shouldn’t take place.”

Following Rules

Regardless, the teams are getting ready following coronavirus guidelines.

“I don’t think the protocols are anything to complain about,” Simms said. “By now it is the norm and the people that complain obviously don’t know what’s going on around the world. We are lucky to even be practicing.”

O’Brien added, “These protocols are important not only to protect yourself, but also to protect my teammates and those encountered during practice.”

Cross country is generally run in the fall, but the delay to March does has a positive, according to O’Brien.

“On the bright side, the team has had a ton of time to train,” he said. “With this time, perhaps new levels of fitness can be achieved.”

Fulton said, “We are, of course, disappointed but have just shifted our goals and will attempt to three-peat at the league championships and win whatever regional meet we have. Another big goal will be to try and become the best ever South Whidbey boys team based on 5K average for our top five. The 1999 team averaged 16:49 for the top five; the 2000 team averaged 17:19; last year we averaged 17:02.”

The runners said their individual goals are to achieve personal bests.

Ullmann said another goal is to keep the team engaged: “Motivation is a huge issue in these times because of how unpredictable our season is.”

McVay added that if the teams “just keep grinding out the hard work,” they will “definitely have a chance at doing something great.”

Staying Optimistic

Fulton said, “There is certainly a level of frustration in having lost last spring and now the postponement, but they recognize that their loss is pretty insignificant compared to the losses that millions have faced in the last 10 months. We’ll make the best of whatever situation we find ourselves in this spring and enjoy our time together.”

This year’s Falcon cross country team includes a strong group of seniors, including Reilly McVay, left, Cooper Ullmann, Aidan Donnelly and Thomas Simms, shown here competing in a meet in 2019. (Photo by Karen Swegler)

This year’s Falcon cross country team includes a strong group of seniors, including Reilly McVay, left, Cooper Ullmann, Aidan Donnelly and Thomas Simms, shown here competing in a meet in 2019. (Photo by Karen Swegler)

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