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What heat?: School and team spirit sustains Eagle runners

Athletes provided moments of drama in the 90-degree heat of Wednesday afternoon at the Skip Sparks-Bob Sullivan Invitational cross country meet at Hood River Valley High School.

Grace Grim dominated the junior varsity girls race with a two-minute victory margin and sophomore Sascha Bockius collapsed at the finish after taking second in the varsity race.

Coach Kristen Uhler praised Bockius for her tough finish on such a hot day, saying the race winner, Emma Wren of Cleveland, is one of the best in the state.

Anyone who was there can attest to what Bockius put into her race, and the gutsiness of her performance. Top Eagle boy finishers Ricardo Castillo and Jorge Cuevas displayed the same blend of strength and determination in the way they competed against a tough field drawn from 10 schools. Grim was competing for the first time since her leg injury last winter, which had caused the defending state cross country champion to miss the 2013 track season. Grim ran JV because she received medical clearance just before the race. She went out in front of the field and won it going away, meaning the Eagles’ premier runner will return to varsity for the next meet, the Sept. 25 Northwest Classic 5K in Eugene.

Water and fruit donated by Diamond Fruit awaited runners Wednesday at the end of the race, but the heat created a trying situation for most runners. The effects of the heat hit Bockius hard, but she rebounded quickly, joining her team Thursday for a Post Canyon trails workout, saying before the run, “I feel really good.”

Cross country athletes assented this week to the fact that, strategically, they did not achieve their goal of “packing,” working as a team to chase and pass opposing runners, and place as high as possible, as a group.

But it was not for lack of trying, and the heat was both punisher and teacher for the Eagle athletes. To a one, the athletes speak mainly of how the team does, rather than individual efforts. “We’re really deep, and combined with the older more experienced runners, I know someone will always step up,” senior Althea Dillon said.

Senior Kailee McGeer said, “The young runners are definitely helping carry us, but we are all really pulling for Grace (Grim). She’s an inspiration to us all.”

Dillon described Wednesday’s heat as “like a barrier between your legs and lungs,” but agreed that it was a great training moment for races to come.

As Bockius put it, “I try to focus on positive thoughts, and a negative thought would have been ‘it’s super-hot and you should slow down’ and I kept pushing through. I definitely feel like I’m ready to push myself for the season. I’m definitely excited to see how my season goes and the team’s season goes.”

That group-oriented attitude is one result of years of skilled coaching at the grade school and middle school levels, feeding into HRVHS coach Kristen Uhler’s successful system that emphasizes team first. That culture was evident at the Sparks-Sullivan Invite, and bolstered by the fresh impetus of “Eagle Army.” The yellow-shirted supporters, and the entire rally squad, boosted the cross country runners with the same energy as shown at Friday’s football game.

Asked about the heat, Maddie Freeman said, “It’s okay. I had fun. It was hot, but it’s always a good feeling to race.”

From start to finish, these kids are tough.

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