Vail Valley Running Club cross-country wins Southwest regionals, heads to nationals in Oregon in two weeks | VailDaily.com

Vail Valley Running Club cross-country wins Southwest regionals, heads to nationals in Oregon in two weeks

It's a familiar pose in a different place and in different uniforms. Battle Mountain Cross Country, running as the Vail Valley Running Club, celebrates their win at the Nike Cross Southwest Regionals in Casa Grande, Arizona, on Saturday, Nov. 18.

CASA GRANDE, Ariz. — This is the best cross-country team in Battle Mountain history.

The matter is settled.

Under the nom du guerre of the Vail Valley Running Club to comply with CHSAA rules, Huskies girls' cross-country won the Nike Cross Southwest Regional Meet in suburban Phoenix on Saturday, Nov. 18, and is advancing to nationals in two weeks.

"It's crazy," senior Alex Raichart said. "When I started, we got sixth at state, then second, first and first. Now to come here and run with this team again and win is so crazy."

The VVRC/Battle Mountain has been coming to Arizona for nationals for years, but the Huskies' best finish has been fifth, both by the 2007 boys and last year's ladies.

"Honestly, it hasn't sunk in yet," Lizzy Harding said. "It's ridiculous."

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With seven consecutive regional titles and two straight state crowns under their belts, the Huskies went out and beat the best schools, regardless of size, in the states of Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.

"It's such an amazing thing to be a part of," Naomi Harding said.

The 4A Huskies, whose student-body count is 940, topped an all-Colorado, top-three podium, including 5A state-champion Mountain Vista (2,340 students) and runner-up, Broomfield (1,596). Only 20 teams in the country are going to Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Oregon, on Saturday, Dec. 2, and one of them is from the little town of Edwards, Colorado.

"We've been very fortunate with our kids, our teams and our community," said VVRC/Huskies coach Rob Parish, who has coached five different state-title squads. "Every team's been fun. This group is special."

It is not hot

Regionals are not only a challenge because every athlete, particularly in the girls-championship division, is outstanding, but because of weather.

Ironically, the Huskies, who have no problems competing and working out at oxygen-deprived 7,000-foot-plus altitudes, previously could not handle the heat in Arizona.

As nice as 75 degrees and sunny sounds to Eagle County residents, that's hot, and there is no way to train for running in that weather in the high country in November.

"On the drive down to the airport, it was snowing," Naomi Harding said. "We had to make adjustments."

Therefore, it was not hot in Arizona at noon on Saturday, according to Battle Mountain cross-country. The Huskies drank tons of water and what they didn't drink they doused all over themselves before the race.

"We've talked about the heat for weeks," Parish said. "We've written down team goals of not using the heat as an excuse. The entire group is headstrong and had a mantra of not making excuses. They embraced the challenge."

"Now, the weather's nice," Raichart said after the race. "During the race, it wasn't as enjoyable."

Start strategy

Battle Mountain had to find the balance of getting to the forward portion of the pack without draining its gas tank, all the while knowing this would be the fastest start of the season.

By comparison, at the Colorado Class 4A Region 1 Meet in Frisco back in October, Battle Mountain just ran its race and was in complete command after the first mile.

"The start was completely packed together," Lizzie Harding said. "After 400 meters, it was crowded and throughout the race, there were always people around you. Usually, a race strings out, and that wasn't the case today."

And a team can have a good start and not even know it.

"Bammy (Megan Bamford), Brogan (Murray), Grace (Johnson) and I were just trying to punch out as fast as we could from the start." Raichart said. "It didn't look like we were in good position. I thought for sure we were buried in the pack."

The Huskies are used to big races — they seek them out during the regular season. Yet regionals are bigger and the competition from other states is unknown.

Even Parish was having a hard time figuring out where his team was with regard to the field. After all, the Vail Valley Running club was wearing light blue tops, instead of Battle Mountain postseason yellow.

Toss in that the race had a lot of fast runners who were not affiliated with a team and the Huskies had no clue how they were doing.

Waiting and waiting

The Huskies felt they had run well, but winning the meet was out of the question. Mountain Vista was going to win as far as Battle Mountain was concerned.

The Huskies just wanted to be in the top three. The two best teams at Nike regionals go to nationals. The third-place team has a shot an at-large berth among eight regionals nationally.

The girls' race was the eighth and final race of the day and so Battle Mountain had to wait through seven other awards ceremonies.

The. Longest. Wait. Ever.

The tension grew as the each of the top 10 teams was announced one by one.

When Broomfield was pronounced the third-place team, meaning the Huskies had finished at least in second place, and had qualified for nationals, they went nuts.

Then, the announcer introduced the members of the second-place team by name. Slowly, but surely, the Huskies realized the names weren't Constien, Harding, Harding, Raichart, etc.

Mountain Vista was being introduced and the Eagles had finished second, and the Huskies first.

"When they announced Broomfield as third, it was like, 'Omigosh, we finished second. We're going to nationals,'" Lizzy Harding said. "When we realized Mountain View finished second, we went even more crazy, if that was possible."

A place in history

Battle Mountain cross-country has had a ton of success under coach Parish with state titles in 2005 (girls), 2006-07 (boys) and the 2016-17 girls' teams.

The historic comparison for this year's ladies is that 2006-07 run, headed by the "The Big Three," of Jonny Stevens, John O'Neill and Tony Crisofulli.

Those guys destroyed the state of Colorado in repeating, just as the ladies of 2017.

But winning Nike Cross Southwest Regionals puts this group of Huskies on another level.

"It's just amazing having a team like we have," Johnson said. "We have days when someone has a day off, and someone else on the team picks that person up."

Johnson should know. She was the hero of the day at the 2016 state meet when Lizzy Harding went down because of illness.

"It's been about five months of continuous training and racing," Constien said. "It's every day after school. On weekends, we make sure we get good sleep, no partying, no soda. It's a way of life at this point."

For the record, Constien finished in 17 minutes, 45 seconds, the fastest time ever recorded by a Battle Mountain female for a 5K. Lizzy Harding finished in 17:50.

Those times will go down as Nike records for the Vail Valley Running Club. Times for the school record must be run at altitude — Casa Grande is all but at sea level at a mere 1,300 feet — and in an official CHSAA race.

Those rules were put down by coach Parish, who will not, but probably should, take a bow.

"Parish can't get enough credit," Lizzy Harding said.

In the meantime, the training continues for Nike Cross Nationals in Portland. It will be intense, but the Huskies are not canceling Thanksgiving festivities.

"Oh, no," Constien said. "I'm having turkey, mashed potatoes and pie."

Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934, cfreud@vaildaily.com and @cfreud.