In the fall of 2006, two of the best high school boys to ever run in Whatcom County - Bellingham's Chris Kwiatkowski and Sehome's Jake Riley - were wrapping up their legendary head-to-head battles on the cross country courses around the state.
Both were less than a year away from beginning NCAA Division I running careers with then-Pacific-10 Conference schools - Kwiatkowski with Oregon, Riley with Stanford.
That same fall, the participants in the county's next great running class were just getting introduced to each other in the area's middle schools.
And if it was impressive for the county's Class of 2007 to produce two Division I-level runners, just wait until you see what the Class of 2013 has up its sleeve.
"Here we go again," Bellingham cross country coach Bill McClement said in a phone interview. "It's great to see. There are so many guys in that senior group that have the potential to go on and run for Division I or Division II schools. Here we go again."
Headlining that group, of course, is Squalicum's defending Class 2A state champion Patrick Gibson. But right on his heels are an impressive array of county runners that includes Sehome's Conner Johnsen and Reed Henderson, Blaine's Tom Bradley, Mount Baker's Dillon Quintana and Ferndale twins Connor and Logan Jungkuntz, and a host of other seniors, such as Bellingham's Joe Charbonneau, who have been inspired to train harder so that they could close the gap and make the most talented class of runners to ever come through Whatcom County even deeper.
"When the top competition in the state is right here at home, it's good for the rest of us," Charbonneau said in a phone interview. "I like it. Each school has a couple of really good seniors, and that makes you work harder so that you can compete every time out. It pushes you to be better."
That's something this class has been doing to and for each other since it started competitively running in middle school.
Johnsen and Henderson both attended Fairhaven Middle School and got to run with and against each other, as well as the Jungkuntz twins at Ferndale.
Gibson, meanwhile, attended Assumption Middle School, and raced against the teams from the county, including Blaine's Bradley and Mount Baker's Quintana.
"It was competitive," Bradley said in a phone interview of the middle school competition. "We were still the top guys. I can remember those guys pushing me to get better even then. It's been great maturing with that group of guys and getting better as a group, because we were always pushing each other."
When the groups moved onto high school and began racing against everyone in the county, that competitive pushing to get better got even more intense.
"Reed and I were running JV our freshman year, but I remember running against Dillon and Tom at the Mount Baker Invite that year," Johnsen said in a phone interview. "I remember thinking, 'Wow those kids are good.' It was fun racing with those guys and knowing they were the same age as us. Then Dillon made it to state as a freshman, and that's when we knew this was the real deal."
While many in the group suffered through injuries as sophomores, and Bradley didn't run for Blaine, things really picked up when they were juniors.
After many good battles during the regular season and at the Northwest Conference and district meet, Gibson upped the anti by winning the 2A state title in November.
"He raised the bar," Johnsen said. "Everybody wants to do what Patrick did last year and win a state title. That's everybody's goal now. And then the marks he threw down last spring, it was kind of like, 'Come and get me' - not that he's that way, but he showed what he could do. He pushed himself to a whole other level. Now it's up to the rest of us to do the same to catch him. I know I'm working harder than I ever have to catch Patrick, and I know Tom and Dillon and Reed and all those guys are doing exactly the same."
Though the competitive fire burns deeply in each of the senior runners once the gun sounds, they're actually all pretty good friends once the race has been run.
Bradley said he and Gibson train together during the offseason - pushing each other harder during workouts but also developing a friendship away from running.
"Cross country, typically, is super friendly," Bradley said. "You are very competitive during the race, but you can all shake hands and talk about the race when you're done. I think we're all friends and pull for each other. I know I like each of those guys. They're not only good runners, they're good people. ... It's been a pleasure running against those guys, and it's something I think we're going to keep doing in college. I think a lot of us are going to go on and continue to compete against each other in college the next four or five years."
And that begs the question: What would it be like if those runners weren't running against each other, but instead were running with each other on some sort of Whatcom County all-star team?
"I consider the team we have at Sehome able to compete with the top 4A schools in the state," Johnsen said. "To put all the best guys in the county on one team - wow, that'd be fast. If the rules would let us put a team together and go to nationals, I think we could probably make a run at a national title."
For now, they'll have to settle for one more year of battling each other for the crown of county's best.
Reach David Rasbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2286.
WHATCOM COUNTY'S ELITE EIGHT
State finishes: 49th in 2011; 47th in 2009 (2A)
Did not run for Blaine his sophomore season, but he's known as a workhorse who last year developed quite a kick to help make him a more complete runner. Would have moved up this year, even without drop to 1A. "He just keeps pushing it and pushing it and pushing it." - Johnsen
State finishes: 81st in 2010 (2A)
With the exception of an injury-plagued race at district last year, Charbonneau made great strides as a junior to join the elite runners in this class, especially during track season. "He's stepped it up to a new level and is ready to run with the big boys," - Bradley
State finishes: 25th in 2009; 10th in 2010; first in 2011 (2A)
The cream of the crop, whose work ethic makes all those around him better. Also understands how to race and when to put the hammer down, and his training allows him to do just that. "I feel like he doesn't fear pain. He just goes and doesn't stop," - Johnsen
State finishes: 19th in 2010, 11th in 2011 (2A)
Probably more of a track guy in the mold of Mason McHenry, but still very strong in cross country, especially with a deadly kick at the end. "None of us can kick with a (1:53.4) guy in the 800. If it's a slower race, everyone will have to race with Reed, and he has the kick to win it." - Bradley
State finishes: 18th in 2010, fifth in 2011 (2A)
Working hard to improve his finishes and not take it out too fast, but a complete runner, who is also known for his work ethic. "He can do it all. He can run a great race and set a great pace. Almost any sort of race, he's going to be in it." - Bradley
State finishes: 17th in 2011 (3A)
Returned from an injury-filled sophomore season. Known for his warrior mentality, which allows him to push a rival until he breaks. "He's just a competitor. He'll go until he dies. He doesn't care what the pace is, he'll just go." - Johnsen
State finishes: 65th in 2011 (3A)
Always pushing hard to catch and pass his twin brother, but also known for his strong finishes. "Logan is more conservative than Connor, but he really knows how to finish. I like watching them run, because they are so different." - Johnsen
School: Mount Baker
State finishes: 44th in 2009 (2A)
Missed 2010 and the end of 2011 with injuries, but is in great shape to open 2012. Known for pushing the pace, something he does extremely well in track. "He's fast. He may not have as fast a kick as somebody like Reed, but he pushes the pace and keeps a constant pace." - Bradley
When: Saturday, Sept. 8
Site: Civic Stadium
10 a.m.: Junior varsity boys
10:25 a.m.: Freshmen girls
10:50 a.m.: Freshmen boys
11:15 a.m: Sophomore girls
11:40 a.m.: Sophomore boys
12:05 p.m.: Junior girls
12:30 p.m.: Junior boys
12:55 p.m.: Senior girls
1:20 p.m.: Senior boys
1:55 p.m.: Community open
Reach DAVID RASBACH at email@example.com or call 715-2271.