It doesn’t matter where Philomath’s athletes run — through shallow streams and mud pits, up and down hills, on golf courses, on the route that will again host the state championships.
Although those venues might mess with a runner’s mind a little with each posing different challenges, the expectation remains that the Warriors will be well-represented. The top runners will likely have a Philomath-uniformed athlete on their tail, or, they’ll be trying to chase one down.
Both PHS squads are looking to complete exceptional seasons this fall with a combination of returning experience and promising young talent.
For the boys, junior Grant Hellesto, who finished 27th at last November’s state cross-country meet in Eugene, represents the team’s top returning runner. Hellesto came on strong near the end of last season and had a personal-record time of 16:40.6 in the conference meet. In all, he had four top-five finishes last season.
But the boys will head into the season without its No. 2 runner from a year ago. Senior Brody Gerig continues to recover from a slight stress fracture that he suffered during track season last spring and he’ll miss the first month.
“He’s progressing beautifully; working out really hard in the pool and weight room,” said Joe Fulton, back for his 24th year as Philomath High’s cross-country coach. “It’s almost healed but we’ll hold him out until the first of October.”
Perhaps one of the most talked-about members of the team is incoming freshman Brody Bushnell. An athlete with long-distance running in his DNA, Bushnell is expected to have an immediate impact on the Class 4A scene.
Bushnell won all of his races as an eighth-grader — they run 3,000 meters in middle school — and placed high in various regional and national meets. In Junior Olympic 4,000-meter competitions last year, he placed fifth in the state meet, seventh in the regional meet and 15th in the national meet.
“Absolutely, yes, he’ll be instantly one of the top runners in the league and we’ve got a tough league. ... He’s in great shape; he’s the one guy that can stay with Grant at all times during workouts," Fulton said.
Other top runners heading into this fall for the boys include junior Levi Knutson, junior Justin Enghauser, senior Noah King, junior Adam Hernandez and junior Sean Cummings.
“We have all sorts of other guys showing potential and they could challenge as the season progresses,” Fulton said. “We have a big boys team this year.”
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Philomath’s boys ended up seventh at last fall’s state meet in Eugene with Hellesto, Gerig and Hernandez finishing among the top 50. Enghauser and King ran as well and picked up valuable experience at that venue under those high-stakes conditions.
A lot of familiar names return for the girls with Hannah Hernandez leading the way. Coming off a fifth-place medal at state last year, Hernandez will be looking for a strong finish to her high school career before embarking on her options for college.
Two other seniors return in Madison Bushnell, who was Philomath’s No. 2 runner at state last year and finished 34th, and Rivers Nuno, the No. 3 runner who wasn’t far behind her teammate in 37th.
“I think we’re going to be better this year,” Fulton said of the girls, which finished sixth in the team race in Eugene last fall. “Kaeleigh Houchin had a good track season but she didn’t run cross-country, she played soccer. She’ll be in our top five along with her cousin, Sarah McDaniel.”
Houchin, a sophomore, placed fifth at last spring’s conference meet in the 3,000-meter run and has also shown good ability in shorter races. McDaniel, a junior, finished among the top 50 at last year’s state cross-country meet.
“Our other varsity girls will be Jazz Choi and Audrey Gerding,” Fulton said. “And then there’s a couple of freshmen coming in — Claire Cothren and Ingrid Hellesto. Claire’s a mountain biker and she’s moving up our list and of course, Hellesto has the ability. We just have to convince Ingrid that she can handle 5,000 meters.”
Gerding and Choi both competed with the Warriors at state last year.
Philomath’s numbers on the girls side are pretty slim with only a dozen girls, but Fulton said that’s pretty typical. In most meets, he expects to run seven on varsity and five on junior varsity.
As for the schedule, the season opens Saturday at the Ultimook Race near Tillamook. Fulton likes the challenges that the crazier-than-usual course offers. Newport, Stayton and Sweet Home will be among the other schools competing. Then it’s on to the Northwest Classic at Lane Community College, where the state meet takes place each fall.
This year’s Paul Mariman Invitational at Philomath will feature 25 high schools and at least a half-dozen middle schools, Fulton said. That event is scheduled for Oct. 12.