A year ago, there was concern Rainier High School wasn’t going to have enough runners to field a boys cross country team. Now, head coach Rob Henry is wondering if the team canopy they bring to every meet is big enough to house everyone.
The Mountaineers have a combined 30 runners in the boys and girls squads this year, one of the largest turnouts during Henry’s 18 seasons at the helm of the program. He can thank a youth movement for the high head count as Rainier has seen a considerable uptick of interest in the sport among its young athletes.
Sophomores Selena Niemi, Dylan Davis and Ryan Doidge have a shared goal – which is to turn Rainier into a cross country school. And after just one season under their belts, they appear to be well on their way to accomplishing that.
All three advanced to the 1B/2B state meet as freshman in 2018 with Niemi finishing seventh overall to help the Mountaineer girls place third in the team standings.
Rainier graduated several gifted runners from last year’s team, including school record holder Elaina Hansen, who placed fourth at the state meet.
“There was a void coming into the season because of all the talented runners we lost from last year,” Henry said, “and they’ve stepped right in and are filling it. Elaina and the other seniors showed them how it should be done, and they’ve just taken over that leadership role for us this year. Selena and (senior) Sophie (Beadle) on the girls’ side just lead everything, and Ryan and Dylan are taking on that role on the boys’ side. It’s been fantastic.”
According to Niemi, the young Rainier runners had a considerably far more active summer heading into this season as opposed to last year both in terms of training and recruiting.
The three spent the past off-season organizing early morning runs for the team members, while at the same time getting the word out about Mountaineers cross country.
“We started talking to people at school about cross country towards the end of last track season,” Davis said. “We knew we were losing some strong people like Elaina, so, we were just focused on getting people out here. Last year, the boys barely had a team. This year we want to make it to state as a team.”
Doidge’s running time at the state meet of 18 minutes, 38.20 seconds was the seventh best in the state among first-year runners at the 1B/2B championships. Davis wasn’t too far behind, stopping the clock at state in 19:49.90 despite battling through several nagging injuries throughout his freshman campaign.
“It’s just a different mentality this year for us,” Davis said. “It’s way different. Last year we didn’t know what to expect coming in. This year we want to get our entire team to state. Ryan’s pushing me, I’m pushing him, we’re both pushing the team, trying to motivate them.”
Both athletes have already shown major improvement from last season. Davis set a personal record of 17:41.10 at the 5,000-meter 2B Central League opener. He failed to crack the 18-minute mark last year and his best time of 18:02.10 in 2018 didn’t come into the District IV championships late in the season.
“We have a shot this season,” Henry said about the boys’ making it to state as a team this year. “That’s the goal. It’s been a few years since the boys have gone to state as a team. It really is amazing. We actually didn’t have a team for districts last year. We didn’t have five kids finish (the season). This year, we have seven sophomore boys alone on the team and both Dylan and Ryan are faster. Our No. 3 runner (Jayson Ducey) is also a sophomore and he’s dropped four minutes off his time from last year. It’s really been a great turnaround.”
While the Rainier boys are rebuilding, the girls look to continue their recent success. Rainier sent seven runners to the state girls’ meet last year, and four are back this season.
In addition to Niemi and Beadle, who placed 27th overall at state in 2018, the Mountaineers also return state participants in junior Hazel Busic and senior Nina Rostock.
“Last year’s seniors were such a great group,” Niemi said. “They mentored us and showed us the ropes. We just want to continue to what they started. I know I feel so much more confident this year because of them.”
And that confidence seems to be contagious as it appears to have spread across the entire team.
“This group (of sophomores) are really focused in making Rainier a cross country school,” Henry said. “And I think they’re the group who can do it.”