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2006 Nike Team Nationals - Northwest Region Preview

Three returners and a first-timer from Big Sky country

December 2, 2006 Portland, OR

by Dave Devine, NTN Northwest Editor

Spokane Pair and the Pride of Fairbanks, Back Again

The hills and haybales of Portland Meadows are familiar territory for three of the four Northwest invitees to the 2006 Nike Team Nationals.  Mead WA, Ferris WA and West Valley AK have all been here before.  For the Mead and Ferris boys, this is their third straight trip; both have been around since the initial incarnation in 2004.  West Valley’s girls received an at-large bid last year, after winning their Alaska state meet and then drawing attention in the Lower 48 with their performance at the Adidas Meet in Portland.

Each team returns to NTN in 2006 bearing hard-earned perspective and distinct challenges.

Joel Ferris will be seeking to shake a reputation of state meet triumphs followed by NTN let-downs.  The last two years, the Saxons have beaten their Spokane rivals from Mead in the Washington 4A competition, only to place 13th (2004) and 10th (2005) at NTN while Mead was nailing down a pair of top 4 finishes.  Once again, Ferris has wrestled the Washington state crown from a Mead team which defeated them at Regionals, and once again they enter NTN with substantial buzz.  But this is a different Ferris team, with understandably loftier goals.  They’ve spent significant time ranked #1 in the nation this year, which has a way of honing expectations to a finer point.  The question is, will Ferris, led by WA individual champ Cameron Quackenbush and Nike BorderClash runner-up David Hickerson, handle that pressure and deliver the sort of race they’ve suggested with victories at Stanford, Jim Danner, and the Washington 4A Championship, or will Mead steal the national thunder again?  2006 is a whole new year.

By virtue of geographic proximity, if nothing else, Mead and Ferris are inextricably linked on the cross country course.  They’ve been that way atop the national rankings this season too, exchanging the #1 slot several times throughout the fall.  Mead won’t surprise anyone this time around, but they’ll be looking to rebound from a disappointment at State and show the form that had them placing 3rd at NTN in ’04 and 4th in ’05.  To pull that off, they’ll have to overcome the absence of Taylor Nepon, last year’s top gun, who has struggled all season with a lingering injury.  Nepon made a promising shot at a return, running 4th for Mead in the Richland Invitational on October 7th, before finishing a distant 7th-man at the state meet in 18:03.  Behind the trio of Dylan Hatcher, Kelvin Daratha and Kelly Lynch, the team has learned to race without Nepon up front this year, but is it possible he could return for NTN and rally his squad over Ferris and the other national contenders?   And could the cross-town rivals from the city of Spokane, Washington turn out to be the top two teams in the entire nation?  Saturday will tell.

West Valley is another team lacking the element of surprise this fall.  Few knew what to expect in 2005 from a squad that had notched one major win outside Alaska and concluded their regular season nearly two months before they hit the line at NTN.  Training in the sub-zero temperatures and waist-deep snow of Fairbanks, Alaska, the Wolfpack held form and accounted themselves well on their December trip south, placing 15th in ’05.  This season, they’ve ridden an Alaska state title against a much-deeper 4A field and a Jim Danner runner-up finish (behind NTN-bound Saugus CA) to a NW#1 ranking and the elevated expectations that accompany such consideration.  The ‘Pack is tight, but not necessarily deep, and again faces the challenge of maintaining fitness for two months under less-than-ideal conditions.  They also enter the post-season without former top runner Crystal Pitney (29th at last year’s NTN, 5th in AK State this year), who opted to pursue individual goals after the Alaska season ended in late September.  Pitney, however, wasn’t in the Jim Danner line-up either, and West Valley fared quite well behind the top-10 heroics of Samantha Davis and Maggie Callahan.  If any team has a leg up on what looks to be a cold and perhaps muddy slog, it might be the girls from Alaska.

Which brings us to the Billings Senior MT girls, the sole NW newcomers to NTN.  Below is an introduction to a team that crept up the rankings until a record-setting Montana state win and a strong showing at the Rocky Mountain XC Championship combined to propel them to the second NW automatic bid.

Billings Senior: Phone Calls and First Ascents

On Sunday November 5th, the day the first round of Nike Team National invitations were being extended, a handful of girls in homes around Billings, Montana were holding vigil by their phones, each waiting for Coach Steve Gardiner to call.  Billings Senior twins Phoebe and Libby Tollefson weren’t sure if they’d be getting good news or not.  The previous day, at the Rocky Mountain Region XC Championship in Pocatello, Idaho, the team had followed up their Montana state win with a second-place showing to a surprising Dakota Ridge CO team.  They wondered if it would be enough.

“We all ran really well,” Libby said later. “I thought we’d get an invitation, but some of the other girls weren’t sure.”

Their coach wasn't sure either.  Gardiner, perched next to his phone all day as well, had his own lingering doubts.  “We had a very fine performance [at the Rocky Mountain meet]...a great season.  You just had to wonder if it was enough.”

When the call finally came to the Tollefson house, Libby snatched up the phone, leaving twin sister Phoebe to judge from her sibling's expression whether the news was good or bad.  Phoebe didn’t have to wait long.  Coach Gardiner greeted Libby with the same line he’d been using all afternoon: How’d you like to go for a run in Portland?

“Libby just started screaming,” Phoebe says, “and I knew.”

By the end of the afternoon, Libby Tollefson’s response was a familiar one for Gardiner.  He says he “listened to a long bout of screaming all day Sunday,” and he couldn’t have been happier.  An avid mountain climber with an impressive list of “first ascents” in Wyoming, Alaska and Greenland to his credit, Coach Gardiner is about to nail down another first: taking a Montana high school squad to the Nike Team Nationals.

The Broncs offer a convincing blend of coltish youth and veteran experience.  Three-time Montana state runner-up Bridgette Hoenke leads things up front, and has helped take her teammates to the last two Montana state titles.  Number-two runner is junior Auriele Fain, one half of the other sister act on Billings’ squad.  Though not identical twins like the Tollefson’s, the Fain’s have been pivotal to the success of the team, with freshman sister AuraLea running as a season-long #5 and closing out important races.  Between the Fain's are senior Cara Lehman (like Hoenke, a 4-time all-state runner) in the #4 slot, and promising freshman Alexa Aragon as the #3 runner.  Alexa’s last name may sound familiar in running circles-- she’s the daughter of 3:51 miler Chuck Aragon, a pretty decent harrier in his own day.  The depth of the squad rests with the Tollefson sisters: Libby, the steady #6 runner, and Phoebe, the reliable #7. 

The twist with the Tollefson's is that they didn’t come out for the cross country team until their junior year.  Both played soccer up until that point; both grew disillusioned with the sport at the same time.  Phoebe went out for track the spring of their sophomore year, and encouraged Libby to run the following fall.  They soon vaulted onto the varsity of a team about to make it’s first run for a state title, which had the potential for all sorts of inter-team drama.  The drama never materialized.

“We had heard the cross country team was really embracing and accepting, and it was,” Libby says.  “It’s all that people say it is.”

“That doesn’t mean,” Phoebe clarifies, “that we’re all the same.  Our team’s really close--we have sleepovers and team dinners and everything--but we’re all really different too.”

Which might be a good summary of the Tollefson twins as well: really close, but also different.  Libby is twenty-one minutes older, but Phoebe did most things first-- ride a bike, lose her first tooth, get a job, join the track team.  In fact, Phoebe has led the way for her sister in most areas but the cross country course, where Libby still has her number.  Both agree that Libby is more easy-going, while Phoebe can be slightly grumpier if she’s annoyed or hasn’t gotten her sleep.  They share clothes, friends, music, and one other thing, nearly a month after their last competitive race: a firm conviction that they are in the best shape of their lives.  They attribute that breakthough to Coach Gardiner and his assistant, Coach Vince Long.  After the Rocky Mountain meet they instituted a “mini-season” with a revised training plan and a new peak in mind: Saturday December 2nd.

“They’re both great coaches,” Libby says. “Very organized and motivational.”

Phoebe agrees.  “They make you want to do challenging things.  Coach Gardiner is always running off to go climb another mountain.”

He's got another first ascent lined up this week, in Oregon.  Only this time he’s bringing the whole team with him.