Experience and senior leadership will be the keys to this year’s run at another state cross country meet appearance for both the boys’ and girls’ programs at Liberty Bell High School this fall.
Seniors Will Halpin, Aksel Thomson and Kyler Mitchell, joined by junior Dexter Delaney, have their eyes on a 13th straight state appearance for the Mountain Lion boys, and another high podium placement. Likewise, senior Leki Albright would like to wrap up her career with her third podium finish and lead her team to an eighth straight state meet. In six of the previous seven, the girls team claimed a podium spot.
Both the boys and the girls brought home 4th-place team trophies last year from Pasco, Albright finishing 3rd in the individual standings, Delaney 4th and Halpin 5th in the boys’ state race. Thomson was a very respectable 23rd at state. Mitchell and junior Tristan Hover also placed and look to jump up in the standings.
Gone by graduation are the Schmekel twins, Tristan and Jackson, from last year’s team and it will be a wide-open competition to see who will step into their spots as the No. 4 and No. 5 scorers on the team. Mitchell and Hover should provide the heart of that supporting cast. Newcomer sophomore Brodi Barber, until now primarily a fall and spring soccer player, has signed on this year.
Omar Ortega, George Chavez-Hernandez, and Birch Marcus all return from last year’s junior varsity. Marcus was limited to only three early season meets last year while battling some injury issues. Moving up from the middle school ranks are freshmen Sam Kaltenbach, Liam Kiefer, Orlo Parkinson and Benji Northey.
For the girls, numbers are an issue again this year. At the opening of fall practice, only six girls had signed up in grades 9-12, which is a step forward from last year, but still short of a full varsity team of seven. It takes five runners for a scoring team, so they are good there, but with not much wiggle room to cover for unforeseen issues.
Joining Albright from last year will be veteran classmate Sandra Hernandez, freshmen Ingrid Venable and Yasmin Moore (who were key to the girls’ 4th place at state), and classmate Alida Burt, who was on a steep upward climb in time and standings at the end of 2022. Hernandez just continues to run faster every year and is coming off her best track season yet, qualifying for the 400-meter run at state last spring.
Samra Newton, who has distance running experience way back in 2020 as a seventh-grader, has returned from a year in the Seattle area for her sophomore year, and could be a solid contributor. A late addition to the roster is sophomore Nella Belcher, who last ran cross country with Newton in 2020 as a seventh-grader. Belcher and Newton ran fairly close to each other in that COVID-abbreviated season of three races, consistently at the front of the field.
Albright will again face league rival Kaydence Carrington of Brewster, also a senior this year. The two have gone back and forth over the years in both the fall and spring running seasons, and it’s been a friendly and fun watch. Most likely, they will be the two to watch in the region as the season winds down toward league and state meets. Albright is looking for her third appearance at state. Only the COVID interruption in her freshman year prevented her from four straight appearances.
The NCWB has been short on numbers for girls in the past, but this year four schools (Lake Roosevelt, Liberty Bell, Oroville and Tonasket) have complete rosters with at least five runners, doubling the number of full teams from last year. The Mountain Lions, based on last year’s run at state without a senior class, would be the pre-season favorite to represent District 6 in Pasco come November.
At the state B level, defending champion Pope John Paul 2 (Lacey/Olympia) and runner-up Garfield-Palouse look to be headed for a rematch in Pasco. Each loses two runners to graduation, but their cores were young last year and should be solid again this year. St. George’s (Spokane) was close, led by sophomore and individual state champion Josie McLaughlin, and should be right there when the points are tallied.
Liberty Bell has a solid shot at repeating their 4th-place finish in 2022, but will be challenged by another Olympia area school, Rainier. The Mountaineers were 42 points behind Liberty Bell in 5th place at state with five sophomores, a senior and a freshman.
With the graduation of Brewster’s long-distance record setter Juan David Martinez, Delaney, Halpin and Thomson project to the front of the field.
Delaney and Halpin are coming off top five places at state in 2022, Thomson in the top 25, that led to Liberty Bell’s earning a 4th-place podium visit. Each one of them had bouts with the injury bug last year, but shook it off for their 12th consecutive performance in Pasco. With three state allotments in the NCWB this year, the Mountain Lions are comfortably poised for lucky number 13.
Comfort probably isn’t good enough, though. The boys seem driven toward League and district titles after Brewster upset them at last year’s penultimate meet at Liberty Bell. “I think we have a good shot at the league title,” said Delaney.
State champion Chewelah and runner-up Pope John Paul 2 were both hit significantly by graduation in the spring, leaving room for both Liberty Bell and a young St. George’s team to battle for the top spot.
The Mountain Lions open the season at Ellensburg this weekend. The first close-by chance to see the Mountain Lions run is on Sept. 16 in Wenatchee at Walla Walla Point Park. The junior high runners open things up at 9:30 a.m. with a sixth-grade race, followed by the seventh- and eighth-graders. JV and varsity races follow at about noon.
A couple of other highlight meets for Liberty Bell include another trip to the Nike Twilight in Marysville Sept. 30, the Liberty Bell Invite on Oct. 7, districts on Oct. 28 and state on Nov. 4.