PHOENIX -- Never in 50 years of Arizona High School State Cross Country Championships, regardless of division, have three teams finished as close as Hopi, Tuba City and Ganado High Schools finished at the 2005 3A Conference State Cross Country Championships. Just five points separated the three teams at the top, but five points were enough for Hopi to capture its fifth straight 3A State Championship trophy (on top of 11 straight 1A/2A championships prior to moving up to 3A in 2001.)
The narrow margin of victory on this warm sunny day at the Cave Creek Golf Course in Phoenix was thrilling, but a surprise to none in the 3A North conference. Over the course of the season the four powerhouse 3A North teams--Hopi, Tuba City, Ganado and Chinle--had faced-off repeatedly with no team emerging to dominate another. So close were the teams that if the State Championships were to be run four times, four different champions might emerge.
Ganado was the pre-season favorite with the most scorers returning from the 2004 championship race. The season-long favorite was Chinle as they displayed consistency and depth superior to its competitors. Following superb late-season performances, including a victory in the 3A North Championships last weekend, Tuba City arrived at the State Championships as the current favorite. Based on a season of inconsistency, Hopi High was picked by few to repeat as champion. Based on history, Hopi was the pick of many.
As the race unfolded, pre-race favorites Matt Rowell of Blue Ridge, Window Rock's Derrick Spencer, and Hopi High's Matt Lamson ran comfortably at the front of the lead group. Running shoulder-to-shoulder with Lamson, but not as a pre-race favorite, was his freshman teammate Kevin Rivers. Hopi's Chad Baker and Ganado's John Bigwater and Beniamino Begay were settled into the lead pack a few strides back with Tuba City's big three of Chris Holve, Rick Worker, and Harold Smiley biding their time further back in the race waiting for the heat to take its toll on the leaders.
Two thousand meters into the 5K course, Rowell of Blue Ridge made a move, charging up the first significant hill of the course to open up a small lead. Among the leading teams, Hopi had three runners ahead of all Tuba City, Ganado and Chinle runners. Tuba City runners appeared to be slightly more separated than planned, but the second half of the race has been the Warrior's strength over the last month.
Over the second mile, Tuba City's frontrunners made their move, but Hopi refused to give in easily. Holve and Worker showed their strength gobbling up ground and opponents with each stride. Ganado was playing to their strength with their five leading runners packed in tightly ahead of any of the contending teams' top-five.
Over the final mile, Rowell built a 20-meter lead that he did not relinquish to rival Spencer of Window Rock. The two finished first and second in 17:01 and 17:07 over the 5 kilometer course -- superb times considering temperatures which were perhaps 20 degrees warmer than those seen in the morning races.
On the outer edges of the course, the mood was incredibly tense for spectators watching the team race. With one mile to go Hopi held a clear advantage, but with a relative lack of depth any advantage would be gone if one of their leaders faltered. Not surprisingly, all eyes were on the freshman Rivers who had now moved into third place just ahead of 3A North champ Lamson only a few meters back in fourth. Tuba City was charging, but facing more resilience than in previous weeks. Ganado had the team depth and needed to move up only slightly to gain the upper hand.
Moving up from ninth and 10th place with a mile to go Worker and Holve of Tuba City were flying over the final half-mile, determined to catch their Hopi and Ganado rivals.
Early on, the two caught Ganado's one-two punch of Bigwater and Begay as well as Baker of Hopi. As the two charged after Lamson and Rivers the expressions of agony on their faces revealed that there might not be much left in the tank.
With one-quarter mile to go the runners dramatically crested a small rise and burst into the view of the throngs lined up before the finish. To the joy of Hopi High coaches Rivers came into view next in third place, but gaining with each long stride was Tuba City's Worker who had caught and passed Lamson on the rise.
During prior meetings of the top four 3A North teams, a single runner was often the difference between victory and defeat. On this day, that difference-maker turned out to be Hopi High freshman Kevin Rivers. Rivers held off the hard charging Worker and Lamson as the three finished in quick succession in third, fourth and fifth places running 17:16, 17:18, and 17:19 respectively. Holve of Tuba City was just behind in sixth (17:28.)
Looking up through the ranks of runners now approaching finish all that was clear was that nothing was clear in the team race picture. With Bigwater and Begay of Ganado finishing seventh (17:43) and 10th (17:55), and Baker of Hopi finishing ninth (17:52), the first 10 finishers included three Hopi, two Tuba City and two Ganado runners. The next 10 finishers included the Warriors' Smiley (15th-18:02) and Lance Williams (19th-18:15), Cody Tsosie of Ganado (17th -- 18:08), but no additional Hopi runners.
The next dozen finishers included no Tuba City runners, one Hopi runner (Vonn Secakuku, 23rd -- 18:25) and four runners from Ganado (Garrison Begay, 22nd-18:23, Ryan Roanhorse, 26th-18:33, Alison Descheeny, 30th-18:42, Kyle John, 32nd-18:47.) With all five of Ganado's scorers (as well as their sixth runner who would decide the winner in the rare instance of a tie score) now across the line, the State Championships would be determined by when the fifth scorer for Hopi and Tuba City crossed the finish line.
And on they came. Bursting over the final rise was an apparently spent Vincent Timms of Hopi doggedly pursued by an equally spent Sherman Dallas of Tuba City. With a half mile to go Timms looked as if he could go no further. Displaying the grit of champions Timms found something in reserve when a quick glance back revealed Dallas gaining fast. Timms managed to hold off Dallas and seal the hardest fought victory these championships have yet seen.
After a long gut-wrenching wait the final score was read: Hopi 62 points, Tuba City 65 points and Ganado 67 points.
Hopi head coach Rick Baker said, "It gets tougher for us each year."
Can it get any tougher than this? With all four of the top teams returning the core of their teams, Hopi runners have probably already started training to defend their title next year. Faint of heart beware -- 2006 may be closer yet.
(Carl Perry is Assistant Cross Country Coach at TCHS High School.)