SPIRIT LAKE — This is the way the meet begins: Not with a bang, but with the world’s calmest bus ride.
The Sandpoint girls cross-country team is in surprisingly calm spirits as their rickety, yellow school bus glides from Sandpoint High School to the Timberlake Farragut Invitational on Sept. 7. Unlike the cauldron of emotions, anxiety and senior Seth Graham playing “Eye of the Tiger” to pump up the team on the boys’ bus, the girls are carefree and relaxed. The girls have exchanged uplifting notes from their “secret sisters” — a team-wide tradition of sending anonymous letters of encouragement on race days — and listened to their pre-race playlists, all while senior captain Paige Davidson braids her teammates’ hair.
As Davidson makes her way from the back of the bus, a handful of girls note that things are “probably a little more intense” over on the boys’ bus.
The girls’ bus ride isn’t idyllic for long. Nursing a quad injury, senior captain Bionce Vincent woke up that morning thinking she could race at Farragut; by the time the team arrives at the course, Vincent decides she’s not going to race. While she knows the short-term reward isn’t worth the long-term risk, she can’t help but feel a bit dismayed as she steps off the bus.
“I know it’s early in the season, but being a senior makes it so much harder to not race,” Vincent says. “We only have so many races left.”
Vincent won’t be the only one sitting out of the Farragut Invitational. Plantar fasciitis takes out senior Brady Nelsen (“I put in over 400 miles in the shoes and I should’ve replaced them earlier,” he admits), while a fluke back injury after cleaning up the weight room sidelines junior Nikolai Braedt. The boys varsity team will be down two scorers, yet morale remains cautiously optimistic.
But the news of the day is that Borah star junior Nathan Green isn’t racing. Sandpoint head cross-country coach Matt Brass tells the team that the defending 5A state champion had an allergic reaction on the bus ride north. For Green, who will likely compete at Nike Cross Nationals this December, opting out of the Farragut Invitational isn’t a difficult decision.
“You’re welcome,” Sophomore Ben Ricks says upon hearing the news. The joke seems to loosen up some of the boys, but the nerves won’t disappear for at least several hours.
The tension eases slightly as both varsity teams jog the course. Since the Farragut Invitational is also the district cross-country course, nearly all the upperclassmen and varsity returners are familiar with the two laps of steady inclines, steep descents and narrow alleys that give the 5-kilometer course its fair share of challenges. Naturally, these factors make times significantly slower at Farragut.
As the teams reach the base of the course’s main, quarter-mile ascent, senior captain Gabe Christman puts the team’s mind at ease.
“It’s not as big as anything we’ve run in the summer,” Christman assures the group. “It’s not a big deal.”
His optimism is infectious. After jogging up the hill, which banks left, skirts along a ridge, then barrels into a shady grove, junior Keegan Nelson says he remembers the hill being a bit longer the last time he ran it. One year of experience makes a big difference in the sport.
By the time the team returns to the tent, parents and Sandpoint cross-country alumni hover cautiously around the tent, hesitant to interrupt the team’s pre-race routine. As the junior varsity race passes the campsite, Davidson goes around to her teammates with marker in hand, writing “for each other” on their calves. Then the girls circle up to stretch.
Meanwhile underneath the tent, Lucas and Christman sit in a zen-like state. Lucas gazes into the trees as he sits on the ground, elbows resting on his knees. Christman inhales slowly, closes his eyes and blocks out the nearby crowd — but only for a moment. For better or for worse, pre-race anxiety will only last until the starting gun.
Moments later, the girls varsity team arrives at the starting line. The Bulldogs are one of the earliest teams to arrive, and for good reason: The team does a series of active stretching, jogging and a series of back stretches before toeing the line.
As teams trickle into the starting area, sophomore Megan Oulman makes the rounds, hugging each of her teammates. Most of the boys varsity team shows up to offer last-second words of encouragement. Then Angie Brass, Matt’s wife and the girls’ coach, approaches the group with a smile on her face. As she rounds up the seven tense, laser-focused girls, she sees Maddie Morgan on the fringes of the group, gets her attention and tells her to just stick with her teammates. Morgan, who is running her first-ever varsity race, nods emphatically, her eyes fixed at the ground several feet in front of her.
From a physical standpoint, almost nothing that happens at the starting line can make or break their races, but simple affirmation can work wonders.
As soon as Brass leaves, Davidson crosses her arms — opposite hand to opposite shoulder — looks skyward and exhales. She’s ready.
Worlds away from the excitement at the start line, Angie Brass and a handful of coaches wait in silence. Although the forest blocks out most of the clamor at the starting line, Steve Perry’s tenor drifts over the treeline — even out here, it’s clear that the varsity girls will start the race to “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey.
The faint pop of the starting gun prompts an flurry of arcade chimes, beeps and trills from the coaches’ watches. Not even 30 seconds elapse before a second series of shots interrupt the race. Back at the start of the race, Sandpoint’s Quinn Hooper collides with one of her teammates as the race’s 100 runners funnel into each other; since they fell in the first 100 meters, the racing official will have to restart the race.
The second start is cleaner. A minute later, McCall-Donnelly junior Sophie McManus and Post Falls sophomore Samantha Wood, the eventual winner, emerge from the woods at the front the pack. Behind them, Davidson jockeys for position with Oulman and Clark close behind. All three Sandpoint girls barely visible in the herd of bobbing ponytails.
The race naturally thins out after the first mile. Up front, McManus tries breaking away from the field with a pair of Post Falls runners close behind. Davidson settles into her pace about 50 meters behind the leaders, but without Vincent by her side, she’ll have to climb the ladder by herself — easier said than done on the course’s gradual, yet very noticeable ascent.
Davidson’s foot-speed comes in handy. The do-it-all track star catches, then fends off a couple runners in the final 500 meters, leaving just enough in the tank to rally past Capital’s Aubrey Salyards in the last 25 meters. She clocks in at 15th place with a 21:06.6 as Sandpoint’s lone varsity girls medalist.
A minute later, Oulman finishes in no woman’s land: Moscow’s Bec Kirkland finishes five seconds ahead and Sandpoint freshman Ara Clark is 10 seconds behind. Junior Camille Neuder grimaces her way through the last 100 meters, fending off Timberlake’s Haileyann Johnson and Coeur d’Alene’s Georgia May to finish in the top 40. Sophomore Mackenzie Suhy-Gregoire squeaks past Moscow’s Elliot Benson to round out Sandpoint’s top five.
Without Vincent, the Bulldogs place fifth with 156 points — more importantly, all five varsity runners are in before Moscow’s top three finish. The Bears place seventh; Lakeland doesn’t run a full varsity team.
“I let the pace drop on the hill a little bit, which I’m not excited about, but overall it was good,” Davidson recalls. “The downhill was really fun. I was aiming for a 20:20 and I got a 21:10. So a little off, but it was a hilly course.”
After the race, Davidson admits climbing the hills without Vincent by her side was difficult. Both the Brasses and Davidson know that after years of racing and training, the seniors race better together.
“In that second mile, the uphill was really tough for me mentally,” Davidson said. “It was weird. I haven’t ran without a pack in a really long time, so it was weird running by myself and seeing [Vincent] on the sideline.”
Then it’s the boys turn.
Sandpoint’s boys varsity team arrives at its starting box, flanked between Mt. Spokane on the right and Lewiston on the left. Lewiston’s boys are noticeably loose compared to their nervous neighbors. Christman and Lucas stare at the horizon stoically as water drips off their hair. Both are tense until the gun goes off.
Racing official and Timberlake cross-country coach Shawn Lawler has a quick trigger finger. Nearly all of the boys are caught off guard as the gun sounds, but Graham and Christman react quickly and get out to good starts. Graham, who is used to his fair share of crowded starts in the 800 meter dash, strategically leans into Mt. Spokane’s leaders, preventing them from crashing into the Bulldogs.
Christman’s start, meanwhile, might have been a little too good.
The senior led the pack until around midway through the race. Once Lewiston senior (and eventual winner) Cayden Byrer passes him, Christman throws in a handful of surges to hold him off. He drops from first to 13th, yet rallies to finish in 11th with a 17:00.6. Fast start aside, Christman runs his second-fastest 5K and shaves 45 seconds off of his previous course best.
“Usually Niko goes out and leaves us in that first part, so I didn’t know what to do,” Christman says on the team’s cool-down jog. “So that was kind of the reason I went out the way I did. That changed because Jett and I wanted to stay with [Byrer] and [Timberlake’s Logan Hunt] because they’re pretty fast.”
Running without Braedt by his side, Lucas leads the Bulldogs. While Byrer and Hunt break away from the field, Lucas, Borah’s Zach Garey and Mt. Spokane freshman Ben Sonneland stick together.
On the second time up the course’s main hill, Lucas makes a move at the top, but is reeled in on the downhill. At this point in the race, Lucas sees Braedt cheering from the sidelines and the sight of his teammate spurs Lucas back into the race. Even when he’s not racing, Braedt is there for Lucas when he needs him.
“I thought, ‘Okay, that’s it. I’ve made my push,’” Lucas said afterwards. “But then both of them went back around me. I didn’t quite stay as focused as I was coming over the hill: I did the drive but didn’t want to continue it.”
Graham and Keegan Nelson ran into a similar scenario on the second lap, but the pair passed four people in the final descent. Graham broke off with Moscow sophomore Korben Bujnicki — the Bulldogs biggest threat in the conference — and had just enough in the tank to fend him off at the line. At 21st, Nelson finished agonizingly close to winning a top-20 medal, while sophomore Trey Clark rounded out the top five in 30th.
In spite of it all, the Bulldogs place second with 82 points — a mere eight points behind Meridian.
The awards ceremony is only the beginning of the post-race celebration. After the boys varsity team accepts its second-place plaque, the entire team walks back to the campground, sits in the shade and partakes in one of the team’s longest, yet most important traditions: paying it forward.
What follows is an open mic of sorts, filled only with encouragement.
Pierce starts by thanking Nelsen, who cheered on everyone from the perch he assumed in the furthest corner of the course. Lucas returns the favor by thanking Pierce for cheering him on as he struggled to stay with the front pack. In the midst of the good news, girls junior varsity leader Jillian Primgaard learns her 23:23 made the team’s varsity standard time; the soft-spoken sophomore blushes as the team gives her a round of applause.
Precise, direct and schedule-driven, Angie Brass ends the debrief just as some of the athletes go back for seconds. The park is almost empty by the time they return to the buses.
For a group of endorphin-filled teenage boys, the bus ride back to Sandpoint is unnaturally calm.
Unlike the girls’ bus, freshmen and sophomores load the back of the boys’ bus. Seniors Christman and Graham are near the middle with Nelson. As the bus peels out of the Athol Super 1 parking lot and lurches onto Highway 95, sophomore Dakota Wilson says what’s on everyone’s mind: He can’t wait to go home and take a nap.
Lucas sits in the front row, gazing out the window with Audio-Technica headphones clamped over his shoulder-length hair. According to Matt Brass, the junior tends to be one of the more introspective runners after races — this time is no exception.
“I’ve been going through a lot in my life lately and the last few races before this were definitely not where I wanted to be,” Lucas reflects as the bus heads home. “This race definitely felt like the first step forward to getting out of that. Yeah, I made a few mistakes that I wish I could’ve improved on, but I still feel like I really did race today. That’s a really invigorating feeling, so I’m really happy about it.”
Even though two of the seven varsity stalwarts didn’t race at Farragut, the Sandpoint boys haven’t lost sight at their goal: winning a state title. While southern teams like Kuna, Pocatello and Ridgevue are the leaders in the 4A ranks, Sandpoint has two things they don’t: deception and depth.
Unlike the southern schools, Sandpoint will start its season with two short courses (2.75 miles at Post Falls, 2.5 at Shadle Park’s Highland Invitational) and the Farragut Invitational’s notoriously slow 5K. As the southern schools post fast times on fast 5Ks, the Bulldogs’ times are a bit misleading — and to top it all off, other teams don’t know they aren’t running at full-strength. Yet.
“This is the strongest we’ve ever been and everyone knows it,” Lucas says. “Everyone recognizes that we’re in a fantastic place, but how much better can we make it? There’s no stagnant feeling at all. Even though we’re in this fantastic place everyone has this drive to better themselves, and better the team through themselves. Everybody’s excited and ready.”