Northwest Christian's girls cross country team returned two freshmen and a sophomore from its top four runners on the 2020 Division IV runners up.
While the Crusaders girls had every reason to expect they could grow into state champions this fall, the boys team was a bit more of an unknown quantity. Northwest Christian played fourth in the Division IV race last year and returned Jonah Archer (sixth place in 2020) and Logan Poarch (15th) for their senior year but no other top 50 finishers.
Yet the boys team grew during the offseason, and joined the girls in winning their first team title in school history Nov. 13 at Cave Creek Golf Course in Phoenix. Northwest Christian's boys finished with 105 points to beat Flagstaff Northland Prep (122 points). Then in the final race of the day the Crusaders girls (68 points) held off friendly Northwest Valley rival Glendale Prep (86 points) to take home the trophy.
"The last couple of years we've moved up into that top five and last year we had some freshmen that came in and ended up getting second. We were young and a little uncertain but we ended up moving up this year," Northwest Christian boys and girls cross country coach Brandon Southall said. "The guys have just worked hard, led by two seniors that worked hard for years. They put in a lot of miles this summer and kind of pulled everyone along with them."
Archer and Porch moved up a bit this year,to fifth and 11th place respectively. And they had plenty of help.
Sophomore Glenn Thomas finished his first season of cross country by placing seventh. And sophomore Jake Harrison leaped all the way from 86th place as a freshman to 33rd this year.
"It means a lot," Archer said. "We tried to tell them the hills weren't all that. We were kind of wrong. It definitely helped the morale. Then we were screming for the girls team at the end."
Poarch said this team realized it could be special after the state track finals in May.
That dedication carried into the cross country preseason workouts.
"Our first practice we had six guys run seven miles and we had never had that before. We usually do five miles and guys are walking half the time," Poarch said.
The Crusaders girls in particular needed to acclimate themselves to the hilly Cave Creek course.
"We only had one girl that had run here before. We were trying to be mentally tough. They fought through the whole thing today. I think that's what gave us the win. These girls are very mentally tough," Southall said. "We knew the boys were going to be in the mix but you never know about those teams coming down from up north. None of them had great races and fought hard and we really won it with effort."
Crusaders sophomore Rachel Johnson went from seventh in 2020 to eighth this year. Fellow sophomore Madeline Lyons placed 13th for the second straight year.
And the youth movement continued. Freshman Jade Chalmers finished 12th and O'Connor transfer Maddy Autry debuted at state for the Crusaders by placing 24th.
"We all decided this one was for God and we gave it our all as a team. There was so much unity," said junior Emma Stanley, who placed 29th. "Our top five trains as a pack. It helps push you mentally. It's a difficult course and you have to go out with courage because it's going to beat you up no matter what. These girls beat all the hills and gave it their all."
Like the Division IV Metro section race Nov. 4, the Glendale Prep girls were close behind for second at state.
Griffins freshman Taryn Janssen placed second for the highest finish of any Northwest Valley runner.
Sophomore Anushka Kulkarni was 17th for Glendale Prep, while fellow sophomore Chloe Cannon placed 21st.
Junior Madeline McBee was 30th. With only Glendale Prep senior Claire Cannon (39th place) not expected back, more title duels between Northwest Christian and Glendale Prep look likely.
"We have a good relationship with that team and their No. 1 is really close family friends with our No. 1, It was fun to see where they would end up all year. With the tqo-point spread at sectionals we were kind of unsure goign in," Southall said.
The Griffins also moved up a spot this season as a team.
Flendale Prep coach Eric Webdale was impressed with how the team ran Saturday at Cave Creek, after COVID-19 restrictions moved state to flat Crossroads Park in Gilbert in 2020.
"It's always a tough course. So we're always setting that expectation of, we know you're not going to set a PR but we want you to give that effort. That's kind of where I saw us fitting in at second place," Webdale said.
Janssen was not going to be able to keep up with the pace set by Eagar Round Valley senior Jessica Madrid. But she handled her first state final like a veteran, reeling in two runners in the final mile to place second at 20:21.1.
"Even following her through middle school I knew she was going to be something special. I didn't know second at state as a freshman," Webdale said. "She ran a smart race today, just sat with the group and didn't push the pace. She had a kick at the end. She didn't try to go out with the leader because that would have been a mistake. The strategy she had, you don't see that out of freshmen."
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