The La Grande Tigers cross country team is going through a youth movement — especially on the girls side.
The LHS girls return just one senior who ran with the team last fall, but have one of the larger teams in recent memory — 16 runners, in fact, are listed on the team roster on athletic.net — and more than half of those athletes are freshmen and sophomores.
The Tigers girl squad hasn’t been this large since at least the early 2000s, when athletic.net archives began.
It’s a far cry from when the Tigers didn’t have enough runners to quality a full team at the district meet just four years ago.
“I’m really excited for what they can do. This year we have a ton of girls, (and) they’re all extremely talented,” said head coach Alma Crow, who enters her sixth year leading the program. “We have so many girls that I really think our program has never been this strong (with numbers).”
The infusion of athletes is more than at just the high school level. Crow said the middle school program now has around 25 runners.
“I just think of our recruiting (is helping),” she said. “We’re building a solid program. When I started the middle school program we started out with five kids.”
The Tigers are coming off a season that saw them take fifth at state and miss out on a team trophy — given to the top four teams — by four points.
The lone returning senior from that team, Maia Vandervlugt, took 21st last fall. Audrey Garlitz (31st at state), Corbyn Sexton (43rd), Jenna Ault (69th) and Lacey Pratt (88th) — runners who also competed a year ago at state — return as well. LHS did lose its top runner — 14th-place finisher Abby Crews — to graduation.
“They are solid. They’re strong,” Crow said of the girls team. “Usually other years I couldn’t run them as hard as I am (this fall). I know their training. Some of them have been running since June. That makes them solid for the rest of the year.”
She also believes the team will get a boost from the addition of Jacki Martini, who transferred to La Grande from Arkansas earlier this year and gave a boost to the track team.
“She is like a gazelle. That girl can run forever,” Crow said. “She brings quite the role model. Everyone wants to be like that one person on the team, and she is that one person this year.”
Martini, a soft-spoken junior, said she simply wants to help the team.
“I hope that I can make the girls stronger to get us to state. We’re getting stronger, we’re getting faster (and) we’re mentally getting stronger, too.”
The boys team is also young, and doesn’t boast a single senior among the 10 members of the team listed on athletic.net, and lost three seniors from a team that placed ninth, including Bennett Welch, who a year ago led the Tigers individually in 13th.
“Those three seniors were very helpful to the team, but we’ve got some good freshmen who came up,” said junior Cristian Mendoza, who placed 14th at state a year ago. “For the most part, we’re still pretty young, were still growing.”
Crow called the boys team “eager” to prove themselves because of what was lost to graduation.
“They’re hungry, and they know they are the underdogs to a certain extent this year because they lost all the top dogs,” she said.
Crow called Mendoza not only the team leader, but one who brings security to the squad.
“That’s what Cristian is. He really encourages them, he motivates them, and when they need a little kick in the rear, he gets them going,” she said. “He brings more than anything just leadership, and a little bit of thoughtfulness.”
She also pointed to Garrett Street and Braxton Bisenius as runners who should make a push at the top of the team.
“Garrett is really stepping up. It’s night and day from last year to this year,” she said. “Braxton can also really step up, be there and get everyone going.”
Mendoza believes that if things fall in place for La Grande, the team can be better than a year ago
“If the guys keep on working, keep on pushing themselves, the whole getting together and going as one, I think we can place better than ninth,” he said.
The Tigers open the season Saturday at the Runner Soul XC Fest in Hermiston, and host the Tiger Invite Oct. 11 at the La Grande Country Club.