Last year, the Moses Lake boys knocked on the door at the elite Nike Portland Invite, finishing third in a meet featuring the best cross country runners in the Pacific Northwest.
This year they kicked the dang thing down, winning the 35-team, 245-runner Division 3 meet with two in the top 10 and all five scoring members in the top 100.
The Chiefs brought their A-game and raced tougher than teams from California, Oregon and Washington state. For a program with intentions of taking a full team to the Class 4A state cross country championships in November, this jump-starts their motivation to take it to the next level.
Zach Owens and Joshua Cooper, as they have been all season, were the Moses Lake front-runners in the 5,000-meter race. Owens blew out to the fastest start he’s ever attempted, because the elite field demanded he try. He went through the first mile in 5 minutes, 4 seconds en route to a sixth-place finish (16:43.5) at the Portland Meadows Race Track. Cooper put it on the line as well, going out in 5:10 and extending himself beyond his comfort zone, finishing just three seconds behind Owens in seventh place in 16:46.4.
But where they won this thing was with the effort of their three-four- and-five men. Considering the fact they were without (No. 4) Sam Roeber, who sat it out with an injury, it made the efforts of Brandon Wood (19th, 17:21.8), Matthew Humpherys (71st, 18:23.2) and Daiki Tanaka (97th, 18:46.6) even that much more spectacular.
“Our grouping was really impressive. I’ll bet from one through five, it was less than a minute and a half,” Moses Lake coach Larry Dagnon said. “Daiki and Killian King (99th) were too far behind our No. 3, so they pushed up through the middle of this group and really made a difference on the back end.”
Nicholas Sarysz of R.A. Long (Longview) won the race with a time of 16.15.4. Owens was just 30 seconds off the winning time, competing strong in the most elite field of his running career.
“Nike was definitely a great experience. Oregon is one of the bigger running cultures in the world and that made it feel different, knowing that running means something there,” said Owens, who won the Apple Ridge Invite last month. “Alan Webb (the American high school national record holder in the mile (3:46.91) and U.S. Olympian) was there. The middle school meet is named after him.
“I’ve very proud of our effort. The whole team ran amazing. It was a great day for Moses Lake. We want to go to state as a team and races like this are how you get there.”
The Chiefs were 21 points better than some of the best running programs in the Western United States. Yreka (Calif.), Prairie (Brush Prairie, Wa.), tied for second at 210. Madison (Portland) and South Salem, Ore., were fourth and fifth, respectively.
“Nike is the preview for state and it’s always fun,” Cooper said. “To win Nike is amazing. We knew our top three were in the top 20. But we didn’t know where our four guy (Humpherys) was and he was vital to winning. We were third (in Division 3) last year and won this year. People at Nike know who Moses Lake is now and that’s a tremendous feeling.”
A cross country team is only as strong as its three, four and five guys and the push from Wood, Humpherys and Tanaka was what put the Chiefs over the top in a race where the best high school miler in American history was standing at the finish line watching.
“It really helps to stay close enough to see your teammates. It’s easier to run with them,” Wood said. “I really like running at Nike and the competition. I didn’t think much about the numbers in the race or how good everybody is. I just ran my race and I’m proud of the effort of my team.”
Said Humpherys, “I’m not the fastest guy on the team. For us lower guys, it’s on us to step up and get the team to state,” he said. “We really need to keep it together. We need to come together as a team and help each other. Nike was a great experience. It’s a nice opportunity to see some great competition and diversity in styles.”
For Tanaka, it’s all good. He is a Japanese national whose family is part of the Mitsubishi MRJ flight testing project in Moses Lake. He’s new to Chiefs cross country, but not new to distance running, having run track and field in Japan. His effort to finish in the top 100 was what nailed down the team championship.
“I wasn’t intimidated (with the quality of runners),” he said. “I like running and I really like passing people during the meet, which is what I tried to do during my race. I like being a part of this team and I’m proud of our effort.”
The Chiefs don’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of Eisenhower or West Valley in the Big Nine, but those guys can hear 'em coming. Moses Lake proved it can run with the best of the Big Nine.
The goal remains — qualify as a team for the Class 4A state cross country championships Nov. 11 in Pasco.
They're up at the Leavenworth Invitational in Skyhill on Saturday.
Nike Invite Division 3 team scores (top 5) - 1.) Moses Lake, 189; 2. Yreka (Calif.), Prairie (Brush Prairie, Wa.), 210; 4. Madison (Portland), 213; 5. South Salem (Ore.) 215.
Moses Lake runners
6.) Zach Owens, 16:43.5. 7.) Joshua Cooper, 16:46.4. 19.) Brandon Wood, 17:21.8. 71.) Matt Humpherys, 18:23.2. 97.) Daiki Tanaka, 18:46.6. 99.) Killian King, 18.47.7
Rodney Harwood is a sports writer with the Columbia Basin Herald and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org