Sehome junior girls' cross country star Emily Pittis could've reacted two ways after her third career 2A State Championship run for the first time didn't produce a state title.
Pittis' response symbolized what she stands for most. It reiterated her talent wasn't the most important piece to Sehome's team success.
Pittis could easily have wallowed in her own disappointment after placing second following back-to-back titles. She didn't. Her vibrant personality could have melted into a puddle of self-pity.
Instead, Pittis followed her defeat to Burlington-Edison standout RaynJoy Norton by relishing Sehome's first team state title with her as a captain.
"I would totally take my team doing well than winning first this year," Pittis said in a phone interview. "I wanted them to feel the joy as a team. Last year when we won state it was such a crazy feeling and I really wanted to feel that again. I would have felt horrible if the girls would have missed that experience."
Pittis' second-place run wasn't her top finish, but her time of 18 minutes, 12.64 seconds was a personal best, improving upon her 2011 and 2012 state-winning times by nearly five seconds. She has been selected The Bellingham Herald's All-Whatcom County Girls' Cross Country Runner of the Year. It's her third consecutive season claiming the award.
Pittis again excelled in races, but her signature on this past fall was her combined leadership with senior Abby Cybula.
Sehome coach Kevin Ryan pointed out teams with the most dissension are often groups packed with talent. The Mariners were loaded. They won state by a 57-point margin, and the majority of Sehome's second seven runners would have been top-seven runners on most teams.
"It's tough on a team as deep as ours," said Ryan of being a captain. "It's just more on your plate. You're worried about all the little things. It makes more of an impact when the No. 1 runner on your team has a team-first attitude."
The two-time state champion admitted there were hiccups, but despite facing adversity, Cybula and her overcame them.
Pittis recalled how much of an impact upperclassmen had when she was a freshman, and with talented underclassmen such as Ellie Rowan-Arnett, Ruby Watson, Aili Emory, Rebekah Oviatt and Dana Ringler, she wanted to be a similar positive influence.
Pittis said she and Cybula addressed the team early in the season, speaking on the importance of togetherness, but Pittis' desire to help teammates improve begun far before the season started.
"The biggest thing for her was making sure the whole team developed, and a lot of times all the top runner is worried about is their self." Ryan said. "You look at Aili Emory, and a large portion of last winter her and Aili went on long runs up Chuckanut Mountain. She took Aili under her wing. (Emory) was a pretty good freshman runner, but she was fourth at the JV race and she finished (this year) 23rd at state."
All of those cold, mid-winter runs for Emory paid off at state, and Pittis fondly remembers meeting the sophomore at the conclusion of the race.
Pittis finished 20 seconds in front of Rowan-Arnett, Sehome's second-place runner, and had no idea how well the rest of her team was doing.
Her excitement grew as she began to catch her breath.
"I was almost more proud of them than I am of myself," Pittis said of her team. "I felt two hands on my back and it was Aili. She was right behind me, and at that moment it was like, 'This is a great year.' I didn't really know where anybody was."
Emory's 19:21.4 run at state was nearly a two-minute improvement on her best freshman-year time.
Pittis' leadership was integral to the Mariners winning their seventh title in the last eight years, but what shouldn't get lost was her own performance in a year in which she was bouncing back from health problems due to an iron deficiency.
Ryan and co-coach Nic Castona came up with a plan, for precautionary purposes, to limit Pittis throughout the year. Ryan and Castona raved about the discipline Pittis showed. She took great care of her body, and results showed during the state meet.
"One thing I'd say that I saw is she was able to run with more control this year," Castona said in a phone interview. "You could see she runs fast and really has that ability, but she was holding back."
Running less than 100 percent was an adjustment, Pittis said, but the whole time she maintained focus on the meet she knew what really mattered.
Her running plan also forced her to overcome mental challenges. Sure, Pittis knew she was an elite runner, but without competing as hard as she could at meets, it was difficult for her to gauge how she measured up to other top runners.
"It can be pretty tough when you go out to race and you want to do you best and really lay it out there," Pittis said. "I kept thinking, 'This isn't the race that I'll remember. I want to do my best when it really counts.' I'm pretty good at knowing what I need to do, but it is kind of scary going into state after most of the races not giving it my all."
Thankfully, it came together at state, and although she wanted to three-peat, she gave tremendous credit to Norton. She also praised Ryan and Castona for helping the team become as dominant as they were.
"Our coaches were the key to the season," Pittis said. "Nic was a newer coach and he really stepped up and they deserve a lot of credit for how I performed and for how the girls performed. We went into state and wanted to win it for them. We knew how much they cared about the team, and they were a really big part of it."
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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