WALLA WALLA — The girls side of the Walla Walla High School cross country team has its sights set on a state championship.
With four of the top five runners from last season returning, head coach Michael Locati said the girls team has a good chance at reaching that goal.
But first, the Blue Devils will have to get through a grueling Mid-Columbia Conference schedule featuring perennial powerhouse programs Richland and Kamiakin.
“You’re seeking out people who are as good as you, if not better, because that gives you the opportunity to be the best you can be,” Locati said. “For us to have some strong teams to compete against, we may not look like we’re real successful, but it really pulls the best out of you. That’s what we have found over the past couple years in the league.”
Last season, the girls team finished fifth at the regional meet.
But, two of Wa-Hi’s top five runners missed the meet because of illness, Locati said. With those two at full strength, he said the Blue Devils likely would have made it to the state competition as a team.
Instead, only junior Courtney Cox reached the state meet, as she finished 18th individually.
Cox, who also finished fourth at regionals last season, returns this year and will once again occupy the top spot for the Blue Devils.
“Courtney is looking very good,” Locati said. “She had a good summer. She’s healthy, and mentally she’s ready to go to another level. Relatively, she is a very young runner. She’s a junior, but this is only her second year of cross country and doing any distance.”
Outside of Cox, senior Hannah Hampson, who occupied the No. 2 spot on the team last year, also returns for Wa-Hi. Locati said Hampson, who finished 12th at regionals last season, is a very consistent runner.
The remainder of the varsity lineup will likely be up for grabs, Locati said.
Although the team does return four of its top five from last season, Locati is looking for competition to drive his roster choices.
He is hopeful multiple runners vying for only a few varsity spots will help propel the team to a state berth.
“When you have things set, those other girls don’t have that hope or that vision that they can contribute or be a part of it,” Locati said. “Having that experience of those girls who have been in those big meets, obviously plays a huge role. It helps get rid of the anxiety (and) the comfort is there when you’re warming up — that’s real positive. The experience is good, but yet again, having that unknown also plays a good role.”
The boys team is missing two runners that would have occupied the top spots, Locati said.
With a new roster, Locati is uncertain how the boys side will shake out.
“The nice thing about it is there is absolutely nothing set,” Locati said. “There’s no one there saying, ‘I’m a varsity runner and I’m staying on varsity.’ They’ve got to go out and compete every time they’re at a meet. Kids are going to get faster and keep progressing. It is going to be kind of exciting.”
With a lot of newcomers on the boys side, Locati said his runners will have to work hard every day to solidify a spot on the varsity roster.
He said Juan Cortez, who swung between JV and varsity last season, came out as the No. 1 runner after the intrasquad meet on Sept. 5.
But without much varsity experience, Locati is looking for his boys to improve each time they compete.
“We’ve got a great group of kids,” Locati said. “They’re working hard. They just don’t quite have the experience some of the other (teams) do. It’s going to be interesting to see how we match up. It’s hard to say what the season is going to hold for us at this time.”
With 75 runners on the roster this season, Locati has state meet aspirations for both the boys and girls team.
But the Blue Devils are not getting ahead of themselves. First, Locati wants the team to focus on the task at hand.
“Obviously, if you feel that you have the ability and the talent to get to that point obviously that has to be on your radar,” Locati said of the state meet. “The way we approach it is if we do the things we need to do and do them the right way and we go out there and put the effort out, compete the way we need to compete — then the state meet and the title are going to be byproducts of doing things the right way.”
The Blue Devils begin the season with the Highlander Invitational in Spokane Saturday.