Glacier Peak freshman overcomes jitters to win state in cross country

PASCO — Even five-time national champions get nervous.

Despite coming into her first appearance at the Washington high school cross country championships with five Junior Olympic national track titles under her belt, Amy-Eloise Neale had serious pre-race anxiety Saturday.

But Neale, a freshman at Glacier Peak High School of Snohomish, fought through the tension and held on to win the Class 3A girls race — the first of what she hopes will be four straight individual state titles.

“It makes me think what I can do … the next three years. It’s pretty exciting,” said Neale, who completed the 3.1-mile (5,000-meter) course in 18 minutes, 8 seconds during the 2009 State Cross Country Championships at Sun Willows Golf Course.

Neale used a strong finishing kick — one of her trademarks — in the final 100 meters to edge out runnerup Katie Knight of North Central, also a freshman, by 1 second.

“It did make me nervous … There’s more pressure” at high school state meets, which attract large crowds and media coverage, than at summer Junior Olympic events, Neale said of her pre-race jitters.

Neale’s coach always believed in her.

“I know she’s strong and she wanted it,” Glacier Peak head coach Dan Parker said. “She wrote a pre-race plan that was excellent. She stated it over and over again: ‘They’re not going to take it away from me. I’m going to win this thing.’”

Neale is the first individual state champion in any sport for Glacier Peak, a second-year school.

Although Neale was thrilled with her victory, she and her teammates on the nationally ranked Glacier Peak team were disappointed to take second in the team standings behind Shadle Park of Spokane. Shadle Park scored 59 points, beating Glacier Peak by just eight points. In the current 3A state coaches’ rankings, Glacier Peak is No. 1 and Shadle Park No. 2.

In cross country, each team’s five fastest runners score team points based on their placing. The lowest cumulative team score wins. Some runners qualify for state as individuals and their placements don’t count in the team standings.

After Neale, Glacier Peak’s top finishers were freshman Katie Bianchini (18th overall, 11th among team-scoring runners), junior Brenna Condon (20th, 13th), junior Sarah Whybark (27th, 18th) and senior Stephanie Jones (33rd, 24th).

Everett High School junior Chelsea Dowdell finished 11th overall.

More than 1,600 athletes representing 244 schools competed in the state meet on a sometimes-sunny but windy day. Competitors traversed the hill-filled golf course route in 11 different races.

Mike Cane: mcane@heraldnet.com. Check out the prep sports blog Double Team at www.heraldnet.com/doubleteam.

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