Forrest Welk
The La Grande Observer

The La Grande girls ran in a category of their own Saturday, as all of the Tigers’ runners finished in the top six of the Greater Oregon League Championships.

That sweep gave La Grande the GOL title with a team score of 15, compared to 50 for Baker and 69 for Ontario. A year ago, La Grande did not have enough runners to place at district.

“We’re really excited,” said Heather Keniry, who won the race with a time of 20 minutes, 16.08 seconds. “It’s kind of crazy to think that there were only three of us at the end of the season last year. This year, there’s twice as many, and everyone has grown a lot as individuals and as a team.”

La Grande head coach Alma Crow said that she expected a sweep, so she wanted her girls to take it easy on the first mile. Because her main goal is for the team to place well at state, Crow wanted to keep the girls fresh.

Despite Crow’s conservative strategy, La Grande freshman Maia Vandervlugt still ran a personal best at 20:30.

Crow encouraged Vandervlugt before the race to try and keep up with Keniry.

“This is a milestone for (Vandervlugt),” Crow said. “For her, a big challenge has been up there mentally, not physically. Sometimes, she feels that she’s not quite there because she’s just a freshman. She works so hard that I don’t see how she wouldn’t be up there with (Keniry).”

Vanderlugt ran neck-and-neck with Keniry for the majority of the race. The duo led the next closest group of girls by about a minute.

“Heather was there for me and helped me pace through it,” Vanderlugt said “Heather asked me, ‘What’s our plan?’ I told her, ‘To stick as close together as possible.’”

La Grande’s Kendra Blake and Abby Crews ran together behind them. They ended in a photo finish, with Blake clocking in at 21:33.04, while Crews finished at 21:33.05.

Junior Ashton Gilbert finished at 21:48.09, and Sierra Smith completed the sweep for La Grande with a time of 22:27.04.

Baker’s Lacey Jones finished as the top Baker in 23:25.06 — nearly a minute behind La Grande’s runners.

The La Grande and Baker teams will run Saturday in the Class 4A race at Lane Community College in Eugene.

La Grande boys win GOL

Alma Crow wasn’t worried about her top three boys runners. But in order to win the Greater Oregon League title, she needed everyone to step up.

Each of La Grande’s runners finished in the top 15 as the Tigers captured the GOL with 20 points, ahead of Baker’s 37 points. Ontario scored 75, while McLoughlin had 91.

“It was going to come down to either our fourth or fifth runner, because Baker is notorious for putting four or five runners between those two runners,” Crow said. “If that was the case, Baker was going to take the title. I told my fourth, fifth and sixth runners that they were more important than my first runner, because it came down to them.”

La Grande swept the first three spots, led by Braden Crews’ time of 17:35.4. Wyatt Perry claimed second (17:46.02), while Bennett Welch finished third at 18:11.05.

Crews was impressed with teammate Calvin Smith, who finished sixth at 18:26. Only two GOL rivals finished ahead of the sophomore.

“Calvin had an amazing race today,” Crews said. “Our top three was kind of expected, but we’re super proud with all the work we’ve been putting in this season.”

Welch held off the two runners ahead of Smith. Ontario’s Quinn Susuki finished only four seconds behind Welch, who said he didn’t know how close the other runners trailed behind. He simply ran his own race.

“In the second loop, I realized that I had to pick it up. (My finish) is really important, because it means that it gets our team further,” Welch said.

La Grande junior Nolan Clements stepped up in that effort to get the team to state, finishing eighth at 18:37.09. He beat five straight Baker runners behind him.

Tigers junior Emilio Chavez made it at the end of the top 15, finishing at 20:06.05.

Crews said team efforts like Saturday should propel La Grande to a top-fourth finish at the state meet, which is his goal. The boys will join the girls team Saturday at the Class 4A State Championships in Eugene.

“We haven’t taken both teams to state in past years,” Crow said. “We’ve either taken the boys or the girls. This year is truly a milestone. Their hard work paid off.”