During his 36-year association with the Philomath High School cross-country program, Joe Fulton has never seen preseason conditions like he has this fall.
Despite temperatures in the high 70s and no rain when practice started Wednesday afternoon, the athletes were running the high school hallways. That's because poor air quality conditions from wildfires around the state had become a hazard.
The Oregon School Activities Association in the middle of last week issued recommendations to cancel contests and move practices indoors.
"It doesn't seem that bad but when you start breathing deep and get that stuff in your lungs ... I'm glad they're (OSAA) is being cautious about it," Fulton said Thursday. "I hope it blows away so we can start working out again."
With a lot of cross-country runners not in the best of shape after taking it easy over the summer, Fulton hopes to be getting in some good miles outside before Wednesday's season opener at Silver Falls.
"I'm very concerned about kids running out there when they could endanger their lungs," Fulton said. "You can't get much of an endurance workout indoors. You work on core exercises and weights. We need to get in the woods and maybe we can do that on Friday."
Philomath heads into this season with high hopes for the girls and strong numbers for the boys. As of this past Wednesday, Fulton had 23 boys and 14 girls in the program.
Sophomore Hannah Hernandez is the headliner back for the girls. Last year, she placed fourth at the state cross-country meet in Eugene and she is expected to be among the best in 4A again this season.
"Hannah Hernandez is one of the top three runners in the state and obviously she's back and in good shape," Fulton said.
Philomath as a team placed third behind Tillamook and La Grande at the state meet and loses two important runners from that squad to graduation — Meaghan Alba and Tegan Weaver. Another participant at state a year ago opted to not run this fall.
"Hopefully by the end of the season (we'll be competitive at state)," Fulton said. "When you have a runner like Hannah, who will score on to four points at state, you only need four more. But there are some very good teams in Tillamook and La Grande."
Madison Bushnell and Alexis Van Vlack, both sophomores, competed at state last year and return. Another sophomore that was expected to provide an impact decided to focus on soccer but Fulton has seen nice things in practice from a new student that transferred into the district.
"Madison Bushnell, she's in better shape. She ran a lot this summer and looks to fill that No. 2 spot nicely," Fulton said. "Our No. 3 runner is Rivers Nuno — she just moved here from Utah. ... Her mother was an all-state cross-country runner at Philomath and her father was a pro football player. She's a very strong runner, very tough. I think she'll be a good No. 3."
Nuno does have local family connections and is a first cousin to Bushnell.
Along with Van Vlack, others are in the mix for possible impact on varsity, including three newcomers. Amanda Aulestaal, a foreign-exchange student from Sweden, has been running right with Van Vlack in workouts. And freshmen Sarah McDaniel and Dani Beck have been in the same group.
"At this point, that's our varsity team but we haven't even had our first meet yet," Fulton said last week. "Other kids may decide they want to run cross-country. That happens."
For the boys, Fulton has a bigger squad than usual and has some experience returning in seniors Jensen Davis and Joey Howell, and sophomore Logan Hannigan-Downs. All three of those runners at top-50 finishes at state last year.
Junior Shaden Jensen, sophomore Brody Gerig and the Hellesto brothers — Duane (junior) and Grant (freshman) — are expected to compete for spots on the varsity.
Hannigan-Downs has been battling through an injury issue and Fulton expects he will miss the first meet. Several others are "knocking on the door," as Fulton put it, with junior Seth Staten among a group that has looked good in practice.
"We have a young team with three seniors and all the rest," Fulton said. "This is going to be the toughest year to qualify for state after making it for 33 straight years."
The remarkable state-qualifying streak has remained intact by the closest of margins over the last two years. This season, Fulton said Stayton is good enough to compete for a state title and Newport returns a very solid group.
An earlier version of the Philomath High cross-country schedule showed the Warriors hosting the district meet this fall, something that had been reported. However, Fulton said there was some confusion and it will actually be staged this season at Cascade.
As for the rest of the schedule, the Warriors have a few new venues to take on this year. Among those is a trip this Saturday to Cottage Grove and later on in mid-October, the Heiser Farms meet at Dayton. The Paul Mariman Invitational is scheduled for Oct. 7 at Philomath.