The Mount Baker girls' cross country team made a commitment following a disappointing outcome at last year's Class 1A Tri-District Meet.
They finished seventh - one spot lower than the six teams who automatically qualify for the state meet. The narrow miss was disappointing then, but coming so close has fueled the Mountaineers' desire this fall.
"There was a lot of motivation having come very close and missing state last year," senior Kelsie Nern said. "It was heartbreaking. It gave us a jump-start and really got us going and more focused. We realized getting to state takes a lot more work than people realize and were ready to work hard when the season ended."
Really, the Mountaineers' drive to earn a shot at redemption began nine months ago. All their hard work came to fruition in a big way during last week's tri-district tournament in Tacoma.
Nern led a group of runners consisting of first-year senior Chynna Phan, junior Katie Buss, senior Rayedeen Engels, sophomore Katherine Dunford, freshman Haley Rollins and newcomer senior Karisa Stapp to a tri-district title, beating second-place King's by 51 points.
"Once we were on the podium, we were all kind of crying because we were in disbelief," Nern said. "It was awesome."
Mount Baker, which was ranked No. 3 in the latest 1A cross country poll, will get its chance to stand atop an even more significant podium during the Class 1A State Championship Meet at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 9, at the Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco.
Mount Baker's success has been generated from a blend of seasoned runners with loads of experience, veterans with hardly any background in distance running and underclassmen who are in line to be future standouts.
"The interesting thing is we have four seniors. It might seem like those girls have been running together for a long time, but two of those girls are new this year," Mount Baker coach Kristen Hayes said. "The majority of the team is new. They came in, and I think the girls who were here before knew it was going to take the weekends and the summer."
Mount Baker boys' coach Tyler Mitchell, who also coaches the girls, believed it wasn't since 2004 that a Mount Baker girls' team qualified for state. Barely more than a decade ago, the Mount Baker girls had built a reputation as a perennial 1A power, winning three straight titles for 1999-2001. Mitchell, who graduated from Mount Baker in 2003, remembered a certain gritty attitude and strength about the girls' team back then. He said the sport was coached much differently in the early 2000s, but has seen similarities in this year's Mountaineers.
"Those were great times," said Mitchell of past success. "I was a boys' runner running alongside those girls. They were strong, fast and good runners, and I've talked to the team a little about that. With any strong group of runners, there are a few things that are the same."
Nern said the team doesn't rally around rekindling Mount Baker's rich history, but the 2013 Mountaineers have arguably been the most successful group since the old glory days.
The chemistry Mount Baker has developed is impressive in its own right. Talent doesn't always breed success, and the Mountaineers have become a singular strong unit despite coming from different running backgrounds. Nern and Engels have a wealth of running experience, but Phan hadn't run cross country before. Neither had Stapp. Both competed in track, and Mitchell said he finally convinced Phan to come out for cross country after several unsuccessful attempts.
Phan has risen to Baker's No. 2 runner and placed sixth at tri-districts. Dunford and Rollins have impressed, especially as underclassmen and Buss has churned out strong runs time and time again.
"It's been really really different this season, because we learned to bond a lot more and get close as a team," Nern said. "We know how to push each other, and this is one of the best teams we've had in years. I know the younger girls can carry on as a team."
Reach Andrew Lang at email@example.com or call 360-756-2862. Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for Whatcom County sports updates.
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