HERMISTON — During practices circling a wide radius around town, the Hermiston boys’ cross country team sometimes runs in a jumbled formation and other times in single file. When they morph into the latter, it looks like a unique spin on the children’s game “follow the leader,” mostly because they don’t really have one.
On a given day, it could be any of the top four or five runners taking the charge. On a windy Tuesday afternoon in November as they cruised into a pit stop at Sandstone Middle School, the young man in front was Javier Velasco — a senior who took third at the state meet last year — tailed by Eduardo Juarez. Juarez is fresh off a first-place finish at the Columbia River Conference district meet and may be Hermiston’s best shot at an individual champion at the Class 5A Cross Country Championships at Lane Community College in Eugene on Saturday.
But then again, he might not be, Juarez said.
It’s a system that’s worked wonders for coach Jake Puzey’s boys’ team, largely because he hasn’t had to do much to implant it. His top five runners push themselves and get their best direction from each other, he said.
“We have varying ability levels all over the team but these guys don’t really even require a coach other than to write the workouts and point them in the direction to go,” Puzey joked.
Hermiston’s tremendous team yielded four of the top five runners in the district last weekend at The Dalles and five of the top seven. Along with Juarez (first) and Velasco (fourth), strong performances also came from Alejandro Cisneros (third), Jose Macias (fifth) and Kain Garcia (seventh). The team has created amazing parity among its own ranks, Puzey said.
“When the guy that was fourth at districts this year got third at state last year, it feels pretty good,” the coach said. “He knows he could be in the top three at state, but so do the other two guys that were right ahead of him and so does the guy who’s right behind him.”
Because of the intense competition that comes from routine practice runs, the guys from Hermiston are never overwhelmed by a big meet. The Bulldogs know the kind of competitors they’ll find toward the front of the pack as runners near the finish line in Eugene this week, Velasco said, because frankly, it will likely be one or more of them.
“It feels good knowing you can hang with these guys in workouts and runs,” Velasco said. “Every race is more like one of our practice workouts.”
So what makes the difference for who finishes first out of the Bulldog bunch? Why could Cisneros finish behind Macias at the Brooks Runner’s Soul XC Fest one week but turn around and blow away his teammates just six days later at the Hood River Invitational?
With everyone’s skill set so similar, the minutest details of a 5,000 race can make the difference, Velasco said. In most races, a handful of seconds can separate the top few runners, so even tiny decisions on the course can play out 10-fold.
“I think the difference would be making moves at different times during the race,” Velasco said. “One week you could make a move at the right time and come up with it. Another week you could go too early, just like in a workout.”
With Velasco and Juarez as two of the four Hermiston placed in the top ten at last year’s meet, and others coming on late in the season, coach Puzey said his boys’ squad is gearing up for a possible repeat state championship. All the runners the Bulldogs are bringing to the meet were at least there last year, he said, and have the experience that bodes well for Hermiston.
And maybe not so well for the rest of Class 5A.