PHOENIX, Ariz. - In the wilting afternoon heat at Cave Creek Golf Course in Phoenix, Tuba City junior Billy Orman won the Arizona 3A State Championship Cross Country race to lead the Warriors' boys cross country team to its third consecutive 3A State Championship title. Tuba City's victory tied an Arizona state record (set earlier in the day by Hopi High School) with its twentieth boys team championship victory.
Orman's time of 15:47 set a new 3A record for the Cave Creek course, breaking teammate Ryan Yazzie's record of 16:13 set last year. Orman is the Warriors' fourth consecutive individual champion, and the school's seventh since 1975.
Racing at 2 p.m., runners competing in the boys 3A race knew they'd face the hottest temperatures of the day. Making matters worse, a runner in the preceding race suffered a horrifying broken leg just a few meters before the finish line, delaying the 3A boys race start, and leaving the 125 runner field standing in the direct sun at the starting line for nearly 30 minutes. See more details at http://az.milesplit.us/athletes/404975.
Two months of racing made clear that the title fight would be between the Warriors and their 3A North rival Chinle Wildcats. For two years, Tuba City has been known for its stars Orman and Yazzie, while Chinle has been known for its depth. Unlike many team sports, a star cannot lead a cross country team to victory by himself. In a sport where the low score wins (first place scores one point, second two points, and so on) most teams in this race would have a single runner score more points than the entire winning team score.
When the starting gun fired, Orman seized the lead as expected. By the halfway point Orman had a five second lead on his teammate, and defending individual champion Ryan Yazzie who was running shoulder-to-shoulder with Jesus Rivera of Sedona, himself a past state track champion. Chinle's star sophomore Jonathan Yazzie was running fourth, Ganado's Brandon Wilson fifth, and Tuba City's Dennis Klain was in sixth.
The sight of three Warriors in the top-six at the halfway point gave most fans the false impression of a Tuba City lead. Chinle's formidable pack of Searle Tracy, Darrick Joey, Nate Hardy, and Koyai Clauschee were running in seventh, ninth, 10th and 15th. Tuba City senior Herschel Lester was 17th, while sophomore Mathew Murray and junior Jo-el Thomas were running together in 23rd and 24th. Tuba City's seventh runner, Brandon Johnson, was in 44th. Cross country has no scoreboards providing scores, but Chinle held a narrow 45 to 49 point lead at the halfway point.
Late in the race streams of the anxious fans sprinted off to view the action on the back fairways. As the early finishers crossed the line, Tuba City had the upper hand with Orman first, Yazzie third, and Klain seventh. But the tables quickly turned when Chinle's top runner finished sixth, and less than 22 seconds later, all five of Chinle's scoring runners were across the line.
On the back hills and final mile of the course, two Tuba City runners - Herschel Lester and Mathew Murray - made the decisive moves that would determine the winner. The Warriors' Lester is the only member of Tuba City's squad with four years of varsity experience. After many big races, and running his fourth state championship meet, Lester knows how to compete when the pressure is on. From the midway point to the finish, Lester moved up six places from 17th to 11th.
Lester's move was encouraging to Warrior fans, but with Chinle's runners finishing sixth, 10th, 12th, 13th, and 14th the Warriors needed one more strong finisher. That came from the polar opposite of Lester on the team - sophomore Mathew Murray. Murray was running his first cross country state championship race, and was best known for telling his coach Carl Perry before every race, "Perry, I'm freaked!"
If Murray faded from 24th over the last mile Tuba City could lose. Fortunately, Murray never freaks out once the racing begins. He made a decisive move at two miles, and caught another runner near the finish to move from 24th to 21st over the final mile. This was all the Warriors needed. Also running in their first championship meets, sophomore Brandon Johnson and junior Jo-el Thomas missed earning individual medals by a mere five and ten seconds respectively, finishing 31st and 32nd in the field of 125 runners.
In the end, Tuba City's 42 points edged Chinle's 55 points for the win. The two teams dominated the race with each placing all five of their scoring runners among the individual medal winners awarded to the top-28 finishers. Ganado finished third with 123 points, continuing the near-perpetual tradition of 3A North Region teams sweeping top spots in the boys 3A Division race.
The win was particularly satisfying to the Warriors, not only for its significance as the team's third straight and twentieth overall State Championship win, but for the many obstacles faced by the team throughout the season - so many that they began to joke about conspiracies.
Defending champion Ryan Yazzie was beset by a foot injury last spring that limited his off-season training and early season racing. Just as Orman was hitting his stride in September, he tripped in training, injured his knee, and missed three key races and weeks of training. A horse stepped on Lester's toe, which resulted in the surgical removal of a toenail, and missing two weeks of training and racing. Another top runner lost a grandfather and brother just weeks apart in the early season. At one point in the season, a third of the team was out with the flu. When the troubles finally seemed behind them, they showed up for the State Championship Meet to discover that a clerical error left them unregistered to run the race. Fortunately, race officials handled the problem with at least ten minutes to spare.
Expect another showdown between Tuba City and Chinle in 2010. At this time, Chinle is the favorite since they will be losing only Clauschee to graduation. The Warriors will be losing both Lester, and Yazzie who is one of the most decorated distance athletes in Arizona history with five individual track and cross country, three cross country team, and two track relay state championship titles to his name. But don't ever count the Warriors out.
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