By Rick Lewis
It’s hard to imagine improving upon the 2016 Liberty Bell High School cross-country season.
Even with a state team championship and individual championship for the women, and a state runner-up finish for the men, that is exactly what is on the mind of the 2017 Mountain Lions.
With only one loss to graduation on each side, a solid core of returning runners, and some fine-looking young talent at the junior high level, Liberty Bell looks to run well this year, and for several more to come.
Changes at the top lead the story for 2017, with Craig Herlihy stepping aside as head coach, making room for the promotion of assistant coach Erik Brooks to the top spot. Herlihy and Sarah Brooks will occupy the assistant coach positions, although the staff is using more of a team concept, blending their experience and abilities to run a program together that has blossomed to an anticipated 45-50 participants this year. Their emphasis will be on improving team speed through group effort, and fostering a mutually cooperative environment.
Led by 2016 state champion Novie McCabe, a sophomore, and third-place finisher Gretta Scholz, also a sophomore, the Liberty Bell women are mostly intact from last year and are poised for a run at their second straight state title.
Occasional varsity runner Taya Delong has departed for college, and steady Ava Mott (a junior) will spend this year studying in China. Not to fear, though, as junior captain Icel Sukovaty is ready to lead a solid core including juniors Athena Milani and Lucy Cole, as well as sophomore Rivers Leeman.
“This is a great group of girls and I’m excited,” said Sukovaty.
The competition for the top seven varsity spots will be joined this year by freshmen Liv Aspholm, Keely Brooks, Lindsay Worrell and Eva Weymuller, among others. Notice that the term “senior” doesn’t appear in the women’s breakdown.
There is a confident excitement in the women’s program that replaces the youthful exuberance from last year. Cole and Milani shared the unifying theme for 2017:
“We want to get faster as a team”, said Milani. “I had a kind of sophomore slump last year,” she said as noting that her state time was a little slower than her 2015 fourth-place finish.
Incoming freshmen Aspholm and Brooks are both “super excited” to be at the high school level and ready to push for a spot on varsity. If their efforts lead to others running faster, and lands them at the junior varsity level, they are OK with that. Whatever it takes to “make the team faster and better” is okay with them. They agreed, however, that it would be “super cool” to once again mount the podium as champions.
In what many thought would be a rebuilding year, the Mountain Lion men surprised everyone in Pasco last November with their fourth second-place finish at state. Liberty Bell placed second in 1999, 2000 and 2001 after their 1998 state title in the old 1A classification. Senior captain Eli Nielsen will lead the Lions as they run toward their eighth straight Central Washington B League championship, eighth straight trip to state and their seventh regional title since 2010.
Running with Nielsen will be fellow senior Cade Quigley, junior regulars Emerson Worrell and Peter Aspholm and sophomore Walker Hall. Expect juniors Henry Jones, Simon Studen and Lazo Gitchos to compete for the varsity’s seven spots. Logan Hall, Zach Strong and Michael Mott, with arriving freshmen Bodie Paul, Travis Grialou, Dusty Patterson and Ian Delong, will be applying some pressure on the upperclassmen.
Nielsen believes this team is stronger than last year’s second-place finish at state. The summer running program has been well attended and, like the women’s program, “we are dedicated to improving our times overall,” he said. There is recognition that there are a couple of teams in north central Washington that could challenge Liberty Bell, and they are ready for that challenge.
In the junior varsity and junior high ranks, the lair is full of aspiring Mountain Lions, working to improve and advance. Look for eighth-grader Jori Grialou to make noise in the girls’ junior high ranks, while Zane Strome and David Kominak are the early front-runners in boys’ junior high competition. They will be joined by an anticipated tidal wave of seventh-graders that the coaching team can’t wait to see on the course.
Early numbers show as many as 50 students in the program this fall, according to Erik Brooks. Herlihy was all smiles at that projection the evening prior to opening fall practice. “I am just glad to see the numbers grow,” said Herlihy as he recalled that for years there were only one or two women in the program, and at one point just four junior high boys back in 2007. “Erik and Sarah have been a key component in the recent growth,” Herlihy said.
The Mountain Lions open the 2017 season on Saturday, Sept. 9, in Ellensburg. Meets within reasonable driving distance include Sept. 23 at Walla Walla Point Park in Wenatchee, Oct. 7 at Leavenworth, Oct. 13 at Oroville and the league championship meet at Liberty Bell on Oct. 21.