WALLA WALLA — In all of Michael Locati’s years around the Walla Walla High School cross country team — and he’s been involved in some way since he was a Blue Devil in the 1980s before starting his coaching career there in the 1990s — he’s never experienced a team quite like this year’s girls squad.
Area Cross Country
McLoughlin High is sending Josie Lonai and Susie Romero-diaz to the Oregon state Class 4A meet at Lane Community College in Eugene on Saturday after finishing second and fourth, respectively, at the district race at Milton-Freewater Municipal Golf Course last Saturday.
Waitsburg-Prescott, Dayton and Pomeroy are sending harriers to the district race at Plantes Ferry in Spokane, also Saturday.
Wa-Hi’s cross country team is in Spokane for the regional meet at Wandermere Golf Course on Saturday.
The state meet for Washington qualifiers is Nov. 9 at Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco.
The girls finished as co-champions of the Mid-Columbia Conference with Kamiakin, and then beat long-time nemesis Richland to win the district title.
They have a team contending for a spot at the state meet at Saturday’s regional meet at Wandermere Golf Course in Spokane.
But perhaps the most spectacular aspect of this year’s Blue Devil girls team is the feat it accomplished not on a cross country course, but in the classroom.
For the fourth year in a row, Wa-Hi’s girls won the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s State Academic Championship at the 4A level — a stunning run, Locati said.
“You’ve got to think this is extremely rare, if it’s ever been done,” he said.
Wa-Hi athletic director Don Wilkins agreed, and said he’s never heard of a team winning the honor four years in a row — and doubted it’s been done.
“This is a special group of young ladies who have excelled on the field and in the classroom — district champions, league co-champions and state academic champions,” Wilkins said in an email. “This award is also a reflection of the support they have received from caring parents and coaches. They are fantastic ambassadors for our program and our community and deserve all the accolades they have received.”
Wa-Hi seniors Hannah Hampson and Catherine Feistner have been members of the Blue Devil varsity cross country team that has won the academic honor all four years. They’re joined by seven other harriers on this year’s team that compiled a 3.96 GPA last semester to win the award.
“There have been different girls throughout those years,” Locati said of runners comprising the teams. “The quality of that group of girls over four years has been very successful on both the running end and the academic part of it. It’s almost unreal, the combination of the two.”
“I’m really excited about it, we’ve worked really hard,” Hampson said of the academic award. “What I like about our team is, not only do we work hard in our running, it shows that outside our running, we like that hard work and it keeps coming through in our academics as well.
“I’m really proud of the team for keeping up that GPA,” she said. “Everyone on our team has that attitude that we’re not the type of people who can’t work hard at everything we do. We have to keep up our grades for that title! We’ve been wanting to keep that (state championship) ever since we got it that first year, and I’m really excited we’ve been able to do that.”
“It feels fantastic,” Feistner said of the four-year accomplishment. “It feels great to be recognized for working hard not just in athletics, but for academics.”
And it’s not easy to juggle both, she said.
“It’s pretty tough coming home after a hard workout, and you’re physically and mentally tired and then having to study for a test the next day,” Feistner said. “I think it shows that if you’re dedicated toward academics, you’re more likely to be dedicated toward other aspects in your life.”
This year, Wa-Hi junior Courtney Cox, who began running cross country just last year, finished second at the district meet at Leslie Grove park in Richland, leading a group of five Blue Devils finishing in the top seven. Feistner was fourth, Hampson fifth, Erika Leinweber sixth and Lea Davidson seventh as Wa-Hi won the title.
After the 5-kilometer district race, Locati pointed out that many of the girls got home and attended a study group to prepare for an upcoming exam.
“The dedication they have, that’s distance running,” he said, comparing cross country and academics. “The hours they have put in the offseason, when nobody is watching, and putting in the miles and being dedicated to their craft, that has crossed over to academics. Or academics has crossed over to cross country. It’s phenomenal character and work ethic. It’s hard to do. They’re just the kids you love having in class and on the team. They’re phenomenal.”
Whether academics begot cross country success, or vice versa, the results in both have been impressive headed to Spokane.
The Wa-Hi girls team has expectations of finishing in the top two and qualifying for state on Nov. 9 at Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco.
“Courtney (Cox) is top 10 in the state,” Locati said, “and I think several other (girls) could be in the top 30. When you add that up, that’s a pretty powerful group of girls.”
The top five Blue Devil runners have been packed up to 30 seconds apart in recent races.
“They compete very well in comparison to other teams,” Locati said. “That’s our strength going into regional and when we get to state, hopefully.”
The top two teams and 10 individuals head to the state race.
“Individually, it’s going to be a crap shoot,” Locati said of the girls’ chances. “Almost any of these girls could make it into the top 10.”
Last year, Cox advanced to the state meet where she finished 18th. Hampson and Feistner narrowly missed qualifying last season, and the Wa-Hi squad was hit by illness which prevented their qualifying as a team.
This year, Locati said the team has been splitting workouts to reduce fatigue and the chance of illness.
“Everybody seems healthy right now,” he said.
“I’m glad we’re going to state for academics already, but I’m really proud of how far our (cross country) team has gone,” Hampson said. “We won district last week, and I think we have a really good chance of making it to state. I’m just really happy to be on this team right now, it’s like a second family. I’m really excited about what we can do this weekend.”
The Blue Devil boys have shown the improvement throughout the season, which Locati said is the goal.
The boys, who finished just a point behind Richland for the district championship, can realistically hope to qualify Juan Cortez, a second-place finisher at district, for the state tournament individually, Locati said.
“We’ve been excited about the boys,” he said. “Like any program or team, you want to get better over the season, and both the boys and girls have done that. To see the growth of the boys has been phenomenal. Last week (at district) they were within one point (of Richland), and head a chance to beat them. So we’re going in with a lot of confidence, hoping to run really well. Hopefully we can knock off some team that have beaten us, and continue our progress.”
The Wa-Hi girls are optimistic.
“I feel really strong, and I think our team is strong,” Feistner said. “I have a really good feeling this year.”