By Aaron Swaney Herald Writer
LANGLEY — Most of the runners in the District 1 3A boys race were done. Having just finished what was for most the final race of the season, they milled around the infield of the track at South Whidbey High School, talked to coaches and received congratulatory hugs from friends and family.
But as the cheers from the stands started to die down, a murmur started to move through the crowd. Then for a brief second it was silent.
In the distance six runners appeared out of the forest running slowly in unison together. The crowd started to clap and a host of runners and coaches started to walk to the eastern edge of the track to welcome the Marysville Getchell boys team as it neared the end of the race.
Not sure if they would run at all earlier in the week after the death of teammate Juan Mendoza, the MG boys team made the decision to race together at Saturday’s district meet. That meant staying together in a pack, running with the slowest runner on the team, giving up any chance for state.
As they exited the chute and entered the track for the final lap, the team stopped and took out T-shirts: black for the varsity and white for the two junior varsity runners. The black T-shirts read “Win it for Juan” on the front and “Drive Safe” on the back. (Mendoza was killed in a car crash on Monday afternoon). The white shirts were an honorary shirt with Mendoza’s name on the back worn by all of the MG runners.
The runners then lined up six across the track, clasped hands and started walking to the finish line. As they slowly marched around the oval, teams lined both sides of the track, clapping and encouraging the members of their cross country family. Shouts came up from the infield, including “Let’s go Marysville” and “Class act fellas.”
“It was a really cool gesture and nice of people to catch on to what was going on there,” MG head coach Randy Edens said. “I’m super proud of those guys.”
After crossing the finish line, the runners formed a circle with a visibly emotional Edens and hugged. The girls team, which followed the boys team around the track from the infield, then embraced the boys team as a whole. The runners cried and consoled one another, an emotional end to a week of living with the tragedy that killed one of their teammates and left two more in the hospital.
“I certainly think (Juan) would appreciate being honored in that respect,” said Edens, still choking back tears a few minutes after his team’s finish.
The decision to run was Erik Kundu’s. The senior was good friends with Mendoza and is the brother of one of the passengers injured in the crash. Edens said he and the rest of the runners left it up to Kundu as to whether they should run or not. He and fellow captain Cameron Carter came up with the idea to honor Mendoza with the processional walk around the track to finish.
After MG runners were done and had returned to their tent, the MG team received a card of support from the Everett cross country team.
Oak Harbor head coach Eric Peterson said it was especially poignant since one of his runners, Matt Reith, was in a car accident just two weeks ago.
“You know you have such a relationship with these kids, you treat them as your own,” Peterson said. “I teared up a little bit. I feel for them and everything they’re going through.”
With the race over and the results posted, the final six runners of the 3A race all had Marysville Getchell next to their name. A show of unity in a time of tragedy.
“I think (Juan) would have really like it,” MG runner Brendan Smith said.