Some like the challenge of hills, some enjoy running on grass and others love mud bogs, but whatever courses Grant Union Prospector cross country runners prefer, they play to their strengths.
Head coach Sonna Smith has nine boys and nine girls on this year’s roster. This season and last are the biggest teams Smith has seen since she started coaching in 1995.
Eight of the nine boys are returning runners with four returners for the girls.
“The boys team has lots of experience coming in,” Smith said. “All have at least two years of experience.”
Gage Brandon and Donavan Smith are two seniors on the boys team.
Brandon was a top runner for the Prospector boys last season, and freshman Brady Dole was first in the timed trial Smith held at the start of practices.
Brandon, who’s competed in cross country since eighth grade, said this year’s freshmen are “extremely good.”
“This year is looking to be better than previous years, and next year is looking promising as well,” Brandon said.
Freshman Max Bailey finished eighth out of 38 participants at last year’s Footrace to Valhalla in Umatilla on the 1.5-mile course with a time of 9:15.8. His fellow classmates were right behind him, including Quinn Larson in ninth with 9:29.2 and Brady Dole in 10th with 9:29.9. Grant Hall, who is an eighth-grader this year on the middle school team, finished fourth in the same race with a time of 8:59.7.
The varsity teams race in 5K events, 3.1 miles.
There are several untried underclassman on the team, Smith said, and their first races of the season will give them a better idea of how the runners line up.
“Time will tell,” she said.
For the girls, Smith said seniors Erika Dickens and Rylee Browning are expected to battle for first and second for the team. Other senior girls are Tiler Voigt and manager Sammi Buckhaults.
Freshman Amelia Hall could also be a top runner for the girls team. She ran a 2,500-meter middle school race last year as an eighth-grader at Runners Soul placing 19th out of 89 participants.
Donavan Smith, a senior on the boys team, said he enjoys the team, which is like a family.
“I enjoy the difficulty and the accomplishment of finishing a race,” he said.
Dickens said the team is excited for the new year and all the new faces and for everyone to meet their goals. She enjoys running through mud pits and water during races.
“It adds excitement and makes you forget the difficulties,” she said.
Buckhaults said you have to be careful — “You might lose your shoes or glasses in the mud.”
Coach Smith said the Idlewild Meet held at a campground north of Burns is a favorite.
She said the course is completely in the forest, and sometimes there is snow.
Grant Union will hold a meet this year, the Grant Union Gold Rush on Thursday, Oct. 24, at the Seventh Street Complex, hosting eight 5A-2A teams.
The Prospector boys and girls are both in District 3, but the boys are in a 2A/1A group with 12 other teams, and the girls race with the 3A-1A class with 20 other teams.
The top two teams at the district meet will advance to state, and the top five individual runners also go to state.
On the girls side last year, Enterprise and Burns advanced to state, with Burns beating out Union, which typically has a strong team.
Smith said Union and Enterprise will be top contenders for the boys.
To meet the challenges of each race, the coach pushes her athletes.
“We work on increasing their endurance to run hard,” she said. “We ran hills the last two weeks, then intervals.”
After running a couple laps at practice, Smith sent the high school runners out for a 4-mile run and middle school runners for a 30-minute run.
“Some athletes are better on hills, others on grass,” she said. “They learn their strengths and learn to apply them in racing conditions that favor them.”
Grant Union cross country schedule
Sept. 13: 43rd Annual Catherine Creek Scamper, near Union at Catherine Creek Campground, 1 p.m.
Sept. 20: The Footrace to Valhalla in Umatilla, TBD
Sept. 27: Baker Invite at Baker City Golf Course, TBD
Oct. 3: Mustang Invitational at Thompson Ranch in Heppner, TBD
Oct. 11: Tiger Invite at La Grande Country Club, TBD
Oct. 17: Kyle Burnside Wildhorse Invite at Wildhorse Golf Course in Pendleton, TBD
Oct. 19: Idlewild Invite at Burns High School, TBD
Oct. 24: Grant Union Gold Rush, John Day, TBD
Nov. 1: 3A/2A/1A Special District 3 at Pendleton Community Park, TBD