The Arlington High School cross country program went nearly four decades without qualifying its boys team for the state meet.
But now, reaching state is the expectation.
And coming home with hardware is commonplace.
The Eagles’ boys cross country program has undergone a massive transformation over the past decade, rising from an afterthought to a perennial Class 3A state power. And after cruising to another district title last week, this year’s team is dreaming big heading into Saturday’s state meet in Pasco.
“We’re real focused on trying to win a state championship this year,” said longtime Arlington coach Mike Shierk, who’s in his 23rd season with the program. “… They’re ready to go. And most importantly, they believe.”
Just a decade ago in 2011, the Eagles finished last out of 16 teams in the district meet for the second consecutive year. At that point, the program hadn’t sent a boys team to state since 1975.
And that helped kickstart the program’s rise.
The Eagles have now captured five district titles in the past seven full-length seasons. They’re headed to state for the seventh consecutive time. And they’ve earned six consecutive 3A top-10 state finishes, including four top-four state trophies during that span.
“We got a crop of guys that just were brothers,” Shierk said of that 2014 team that helped change the program’s trajectory. “They just loved each other, they were committed to a cause and they got the ball rolling.
“And once you get that momentum going and there’s a sense of tradition, there’s kind of a sense of responsibility to keep the tradition going. It just kept going from there. Now, it’s just a belief. It’s a part of our program. It’s an expectation.”
And with Shierk also being a teacher and track coach at one of Arlington School District’s middle schools, he’s able to spread that belief to potential runners before they even reach high school.
“I just try to hook ‘em,” Shierk said. “I used to coach track at the high school, but I thought I could better serve the cross country program by coaching track at the middle school — getting these kids’ interest and then bringing them on board with what we’re doing.”
One of the biggest factors in the program’s ascent, Shierk said, was the addition of former Washington State University distance-running standout Jon Murray as a co-head coach in 2011.
“Jon definitely was like a dream come true for me, because then I finally had someone who was as passionate about the sport as I was,” Shierk said. “And together, we could just really produce something positive. And I think we’ve got a great model right now just in everything we do.”
Through trial and error, Shierk said, they found a consistent recipe for success.
“It requires a lot of commitment, but we tried to set the program up so that the kids see the benefit in it and they enjoy it, and it’s not like we’re just twisting their arm to do it,” Shierk said. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, we love this.’ It’s a culture.
“We’ve got a camp that we do,” he added. “We’ve got summer training. We’ve got things that we do during the season. We’ve got expectations, how we race, how we manage things, how we fundraise, everything. And if we do those things correctly with integrity, it all comes together.”
And for the Eagles, it certainly has come together this fall.
And heading into the state meet, Arlington has four runners ranked in the top 40 of the 3A classification, according to Athletic.net.
“They’re probably one of the hardest-working groups of guys I’ve ever known, because they’re just tough as nails,” Shierk said. “They bring it. They’re highly competitive. They’re edgy. They don’t mess around.
“They come to practice like it’s a work day. They’ve got their hard hat on with their lunch pail, and they show up ready to get it done.”
But as senior standouts Aiden Emerson and Brandon Moore said, they’re also a tight-knit group that enjoys each other’s presence.
“We really put a lot of emphasis on having fun and making sure we’re not stressing ourselves out,” Emerson said. “So we know that when it’s time to work hard, it’s time to work hard. But when you’re not, you should be having fun and hanging out with the boys.”
Emerson’s fastest 5,000-meter time this season is 15 minutes, 22.6 seconds, which ranks seventh in 3A. Moore, who won the individual district title last week, ranks 11th in 3A with a top time of 15:36.8.
On any given day, Shierk said, either one of them can be the Eagles’ top runner.
“I continue to think to myself, ‘When does a coach get lucky enough to have those two boys?’” Shierk said. “Because they’re a couple of horses. Man, can they get after it. They’re prototypical Pac-12 potential runners. … They’re just a coach’s dream.”
Shierk remembers coaching a middle school track meet when Moore and Emerson were in eighth grade and racing for rival schools. Moore ran a 4:39 mile, which was one of the fastest times in the nation for his grade, Shierk said. Emerson crossed the line shortly after in 4:52.
“I call Jon and I go, ‘You’re never gonna believe what just happened,’” Shierk said. “… And (now) here they are as seniors. And either one of them on Saturday could win the state championship. They’re both in it.”
Over the past few years, Emerson and Moore have become best friends who push each other in cross country and hang out with each other outside of the sport.
“It’s really great to have somebody that you can hang out with,” Emerson said, “and then also work hard with, go on runs with and … go try to win state titles with.”
Arlington’s No. 3 and No. 4 runners are senior Kiyoshi Hall and junior Ryan Rushton, who each would be the top runner on most teams around the state. Hall is ranked 34th in 3A with a best time of 16:10.4, while Rushton is 38th at 16:13.3.
Behind them are junior Kellen Langford (16:50.5) and sophomore Myles Murray (17:01.3), who is co-head coach Jon Murray’s son. Rounding out the Eagles’ top seven is sophomore Andrew Schmitz (17:20.3).
“I’ve had to remind myself all season long to really, really appreciate what we have right now, because we’ve got these guys that are so tough,” Shierk said. “So you just have to sometimes pinch yourself and remember what you’ve got and appreciate it. It’s pretty cool.”
To capture the 3A state title Saturday, Arlington would have to beat a juggernaut Bishop Blanchet team. The Braves are loaded with elite talent, featuring four runners who are ranked in the top five of 3A.
But Shierk said he and his runners are confident in themselves and their race plan.
“We expect it to be a pretty special day,” Shierk said. “We look forward to it. They’re ready to go, man. They’re ready to go. They are chomping at the bit.”
“We’ve been dreaming about (this) race since summer started,” Emerson added. “… We’re all really excited. We have big expectations and hopefully we can pull off something special.”