By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
SNOHOMISH — Having a top cross country team means having some top runners, and for the past four years the Glacier Peak girls squad had two of the best.
Beginning in 2009 and continuing through last season, Amy-Eloise Neale and Katie Bianchini gave the Grizzlies a virtually unprecedented one-two tandem not only among Western Conference schools, but for all of Washington. In four trips to state, Neale won three individual titles and placed second once, while Bianchini had top-five finishes the last three years.
Both girls graduated last spring and are now leading runners at NCAA Division I programs, with Neale at the University of Washington and Bianchini at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. And with their departures, Glacier Peak coach Dan Parker was wondering how his program would fare going forward.
As it turns out, Parker had little reason to worry.
So far in the 2013 season, the Grizzlies have barely missed a stride. With a core of returning veterans and some very promising freshmen, including No. 1 runner Heidi Smith, Glacier Peak is ranked first in the state by the Washington State Cross Country Coaches Association.
Moreover, the Grizzlies won last week’s Wesco 3A race, they are the favorite to win Saturday’s District 1 3A title, and likewise a good bet to defend last year’s state 3A championship.
Parker acknowledges that Neale and Bianchini were “incredible athletes ? and they led us to whatever successes we had,” but he also says this year’s team is deep, talented and hungry.
Glacier Peak’s returning runners “felt like this (season) was an opportunity to prove they were not just also-rans, but that they were talented in and of themselves,” Parker said. “And they set out to prove that they could win it all without the help of Amy-Eloise and Katie.
“That’s essentially what this season’s all about,” he said. “It’s about validating themselves and their talent and their drive.”
This season “is about living up to the years that Amy and Katie were here,” agreed senior Megan Davis, one of the team’s co-captains. “It’s a lot to live up to, but we want to carry on. And even though we’re getting new faces, the level (of work) that we put in keeps us good.”
Neale and Bianchini “were like at another level,” added junior Katherine Dittman. With them, “there was always like a safety net. ? But we’re still pretty good. We work a lot harder in practices than other teams do, and that really shows in races.”
The key for the Grizzlies has been depth. They are usually not finishing 1-2 in races as they often did with Neale and Bianchini, but they are still bunching a group of runners near the top. At last week’s Wesco championships, for example, Smith was second, Davis was fourth and Dittman sixth, with other Grizzlies nabbing the eighth, 13th, 15th, 16th and 17th spots.
“We have a good contingent of girls who are willing to train and get the job done, who are discovering exactly what they can do, and who are going to form the nucleus for us going forward,” Parker said.
And it helps that outstanding freshmen keep showing up at Glacier Peak. Like Smith, who “wasn’t as celebrated as Katie and Amy-Eloise were coming in,” he said. “They crushed people at the middle school level, and they even used to beat the boys. So Heidi wasn’t there, but she does have the ability and the possibility of going in the same direction as Amy-Eloise and Katie.”
Assuming the Grizzlies avoid a complete collapse at the district race, they will advance to the state meet for the sixth consecutive season, or every year of the school’s existence. Glacier Peak has never finished lower than seventh, which was the team’s placing in 2008.
This year’s squad certainly expects at least that and probably much more. “I’m really excited (for state),” Smith said. “When you look at the rankings, we’re pretty high up there.”
Winning a state championship to go with Glacier Peak’s titles in 2010 and 2012 “would be like the ultimate confirmation for us,” Davis said. “It wouldn’t just be that Katie and Amy won it for us, it’d be the rest us doing it as a team.”
DISTRICT CROSS COUNTRY AT A GLANCE
4A Bi-District Meet
When: Today; boys race, 1 p.m., girls race, 1:45 p.m.
Where: Lincoln Park, Seattle
Teams: Edmonds-Woodway, Kamiak, Eastlake, Ballard, Skyline, Arlington, Snohomish, Lynnwood, Cascade, Mariner, Issaquah, Roosevelt, Garfield, Redmond, Bothell, Jackson, Inglemoor, Mt. Vernon, Lake Stevens.
Qualifiers to state: Top 5 boys and girls teams, plus top 25 boys and girls individuals.
3A District 1 Meet
When: Today; girls race, 11:40 a.m., boys race 1 p.m.
Where: Lakewood H.S.
Teams: Everett, Ferndale, Glacier Peak, Marysville Pilchuck, Marysville Getchell, Meadowdale, Mountlake Terrace, Oak Harbor, Shorecrest, Shorewood, Stanwood
Qualifiers to state: Top 3 boys and girls teams, plus top 15 boys and girls individuals
2A District 1/2 Meet
When: Today, girls race, 11 a.m., boys race, 12:20 p.m.
Where: Lakewood H.S.
Teams: Anacortes, Archbishop Murphy, Bellingham, Burlington-Edison, Cedarcrest, Granite Falls, Lake Washington, Lakewood, Sammamish, Sedro-Woolley, Sehome, Squalicum, Sultan.
Qualifiers to state: Top 3 girls teams, plus top 15 girls individuals; Top 4 boys teams, plus top 20 individuals.