Most high school sports start a new season when the state playoffs roll around. Win and advance, lose and wrap up the season.
Minor mistakes can be corrected from contest to contest or event to event as athletes on the top teams have multiple opportunities to prove themselves.
Not in cross country.
If you run well enough during the season to make it to state, it all comes down to one helter-skelter dash with hundreds of other runners around a 3-mile course.
“You’ve got to be smart in the first mile,” Timpanogos head cross country coach Jody Benson said Monday. “You’ve got to make your move in that second mile and the third is the championship mile. That’s where you find out who can push through. That’s where championships are won.”
American Fork head coach Timo Mostert said there is talk at times about doing things differently, but the reality is everyone faces the same playing field.
“People say, ‘Well, what if a kid has a bad race?’” Mostert said. “But that’s it. You can’t have a bad race. Two years ago we had four guys either injured or sick at state and ended up third. That’s the way the chips fell. We got everyone healthy and took second at nationals. You just have to do your best.”
All of the best high school cross country runners will gather at Sugarhouse Park and Highland High School on Wednesday for the big state meet.
Both the Timberwolves and Cavemen got to celebrate state titles in 2016 as the Timpanogos girls and both American Fork boys and girls teams won their respective championships.
Now, however, the classifications have been shuffled this year and everything is a little different.
“It’s going to be quite interesting,” Mostert said. “It will be exciting to see how the teams come out with the merge. I think 5A might be a little bit stronger than 6A this year just because we have a lot of teams rebuilding.”
One of the most exciting battles might be in the 5A boys competition where Timpanogos and Springville have both been excellent all season long.
“Springville has the upper edge after region,” Benson said. “They ran amazing, so if our boys want to win the championship, it’s going to have to be our whole team. We’re going to have to have everyone run the best they can. It will be exciting and a tough race.”
He believes his Timberwolves had extra motivation to push themselves.
“The boys are ready,” Benson said. “They are a little hungry after losing to Springville at region.”
The 5A girls race might be a little more open, especially since Timpanogos isn’t at full strength.
“We came into the season as two-time state champions, so it’s been hard to lose three girls who should be helping us out,” Benson said. “We’ve had younger girls step up and we are excited to be at state.”
Skyline, Maple Mountain and Springville all look like strong contenders for the 5A girls team title.
The 6A boys competition also looks like there are a lot of teams gunning for the top spot. Mostert’s American Fork team has had the upper hand in years past, but he doesn’t see it as being easy this year.
“I prefer to be dominant,” Mostert said. “It’s a rebuilding year for us so we’re trying to get the boys to raise their game and continue on our traditions. It’s a young squad.”
Still, the Cavemen aren’t going down without a fight.
“We’ve defeated almost everyone we’ve faced except Herriman beat us by two points at Nebo,” Mostert said. “They’ve been really close to Riverton and Lone Peak and Westlake has been up there. Davis has also been really good.”
Mostert said that Davis had a couple of runners who got into a car accident and other teams have made some nice gestures.
“I think a lot of teams will do the same at the state meet, give them get-well cards and things,” Mostert said.
The key will be for every runner to win their individual duel with runners from the other top teams, according to Mostert.
“It comes down to whoever can get ahead of everyone else’s matchup,” Mostert said. “I’m sure every coach is telling runners they need to be this guy or that guy. Whoever wins out on the small matchups, I think that’s who is going to win. I think it’s up in the air between five or six teams.”
In the 6A girls competition, Lone Peak, American Fork and Pleasant Grove have all battled during the season and Davis will probably be in the mix as well. The Knights won the Region 4 title, but anything can happen at state.
The 4A classification could also be interesting as it features talented Utah Valley boys and girls teams like Mountain View, Spanish Fork, Salem Hills and Orem.
The Dons edged the Bruins in the Region 10 boys competition but the Bruins rolled to the top spot in the girls race.
Desert Hills and Pine View were excellent in Class 3A in 2016 and will look to maintain their success at the 4A level.
All of the action gets under way at Sugarhouse Park on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. with races alternating every half an hour until the 6A boys run at 4 p.m. Complete meet information can be found at UHSAA.org.