Albright leads LBHS girls to 3rd-place finish
It’s been said that not all that glitters is gold. But on a gray, damp Saturday at the WIAA-Gesa State Championship Cross Country Meet, the golden flecks adorning the faces of the Mountain Lion cross country teams were appropriate — especially for Liberty Bell junior Dexter Delaney as he raced to first place in the 1B/2B boys’ classification.
It was the first time a Liberty Bell runner has won the individual championship medal in the boys’ division. Delaney paced the Mountain Lion boys to a fourth-place team finish, their third consecutive trophy and team podium appearance.
Meanwhile, Liberty Bell senior Leki Albright capped her cross country career with a second-place finish in the girls’ 1B/2B race, only three seconds behind winner Ruby Henry of Pope John Paul 2. Henry’s team took first place, and the Liberty Bell girls claimed third place behind Pope John Paul 2 and Garfield-Palouse.
The boys were making their 13th consecutive appearance in Pasco, adding to the two team titles (1998 and 2021) and five second-place trophies in the Liberty Bell display case.
Senior Will Halpin ran a gutty 5 kilometers, fighting sore legs and a side ache for most of the second half of the race, crossing the line in 12th place at 17:02. Halpin was amid a pack of runners where only two seconds separated ninth through 12th places.
Aksel Thomson, while not in the top 16 medal winners, still had a good day, crossing the line 29th ahead of Okanogan’s No. 1 runner Finlay Weston (31st), whom Thomson had run with for all of the 3.1 miles before pulling ahead at the finish. Fellow seniors George Chavez-Hernandez and Kyler Mitchell finished 52nd and 64th, respectively, to complete the scoring team. Juniors Brodi Barber and Tristan Hover crossed a second and a half apart in 70th and 71st places.
Liberty Bell’s point total, calculated by the top five runners’ positions in the team race, was 142 points, well ahead of sixth-place Okanogan, the CWB league champion. Valley Christian (Spokane) won the team title with a low score of 77, Pope John Paul 2 (Olympia) was second at 100 and Chewelah was a close third at 108. Brewster was the third District 6 team to run, finishing 13th in the team race at 284 points.
Delaney ran with St. George’s Ben Morales, the two trading places a couple of times as if drafting in a NASCAR race. Indeed, they crossed the 1-mile mark with identical 4:54.2 splits. Delaney took over the lead for good as they rounded the “Hairpin Corner” for the first of two times, just past the 1-mile mark. Delaney took advantage of the second mile to pull out to a 6-second lead as they crossed the 2-mile mark. Morales fell back even farther, eventually finishing a distant second at 16:26, 41 seconds back.
For the junior Mountain Lion, it was a fairly typical run, just five seconds slower than his district record at Liberty Bell a week ago, on a tougher, hillier, and slower grass course. “It felt good,” he said after the race. “I just wanted to run my race and see what happened.”
“Dexter found a smoothness late this season that just seemed to be missing earlier,” said coach Erik Brooks. “It looked like he just figured something out.”
The girls’ third-place trophy marked the seventh straight time the Mountain Lion girls have brought home hardware from the state meet, beginning with their first of three straight first place efforts in 2016.
Albright ran a brilliant race, staying shoulder-to-shoulder with Henry, even swapping the lead back-and-forth as the duo gradually pulled away from the rest of the field.
Albright slipped and fell on one of the many short downhill slopes, damp from an early morning rain. But that slip and slide barely broke her stride as she bounced right back up and continued, actually catching Henry and grabbing the lead for a brief moment before Henry took it back for good in the last quarter mile.
“I’m not sure,” said the Mountain Lion runner with a smile, when asked if that slip made the difference. “She’s a really good runner,” referring to Henry, a freshman at the Olympia area private school. “That fall made it kinda disappointing, though.” Albright was obviously happy for her team, celebrating their third-place trophy with them sharing hugs with classmate Sandra Hernandez.
Going up the final hill, known historically as “Heartbreak Hill,” Coach Brooks noticed that Henry had a little extra drive and created some space. “I thought maybe the energy spent on recovering from the fall might have prevented Leki from being able to close her out,” Brooks said. “It looked like Henry had a little extra going up that last hill.”
Mountain Lion sophomore and first-time state meet participant Samra Newton, who had just completed her best race as a Mountain Lion, followed by senior classmate Sandra Hernandez, freshmen Ingrid Venable and Alida Burt, sophomore Nella Belcher, another state rookie, and freshman Yasmin Moore. All three Liberty Bell frosh ran at state last year as eighth-graders.
For Albright it was her third straight podium finish, having placed second in 2021 as a sophomore and third last year. The only reason she didn’t complete the four-year sweep was the abbreviated and delayed 2020 season when the state championships were not held.
Those three-medal winning performances place her in some pretty heady company in Mountain Lion running lore, including Gretta Scholz (a second and two thirds), Danielle Bradshaw (second in 1994), Sadie Bjornsen (second in 2004) and, of course, Novie McCabe’s three straight first-place runs in 2016, 2017 and 2018. In the team trophy run, the girls have taken three championships (2016-18), a pair of second-place finishes (2019 and 2021) and a fourth place last year. The only other state team trophy for the girls’ program came early on, in 1999, when they placed third in the 1A/B class.
Brooks was hesitant to look into the future, as some top senior runners will be departing. “We have a strong junior high program, but there are so many opportunities. We just don’t really know, and it’s so far away, of course. But we are going to miss this group,” the coach said.
Speaking to the student body at the sendoff for the team last Friday at Liberty Bell, Brooks noted several seniors who haven’t drawn the attention, but have contributed to the program in so many ways. Hunter Wolak and Omar Ortega, who never ran a varsity race in their time in the program, were always there, working to get faster and improve.
“Sandra [Hernandez] and George [Chavez-Hernandez] came in from Brewster for high school and I’m not sure what experience they had running, but both have just steadily improved and worked hard to get where they are,” Brooks said. “Sandra has gotten faster every season in cross country and track and she just works hard at what she does.”
“George was probably the surprise of the meet at state for us,” said Brooks. “He really came on and ran well, set a personal best in his last race. He pushed himself and maybe surprised himself a little.”
The senior group includes Kyler Mitchell, Aksel Thomson, Will Halpin and Leki Albright, who have been with Brooks through all of his six years at the helm.
“Kyler’s first love is basketball, but he started running cross country in seventh grade and found he really liked it,” Brooks said. “Aksel has just been good, consistently getting better, and Leki is just a leader and a joy.”
Of Halpin, Brooks said “He was battling through a leg thing this year where we rested it at Leavenworth and it was bugging him at the district meet, but he’s tough. It slowed him down at state where he could have been close to or in the top five and the 12th place finish was disappointing for him. But those kids have been with me all the way.”
• In from WSU to watch “little” brother Kyler Mitchell run Saturday was 2022 grad Jadyn, as was Wyatt Albright from Whitman College in Walla Walla to root for sister Leki. Wyatt is a sophomore at the NAIA college in southeast Washington and plays competitive intercollegiate ultimate frisbee for the Whitman Blues, aptly named for the local mountain range.
• We’re still looking, but have yet to find another Washington cross country program that can talk about three Olympic Games-participating alumni: Brian Gregg, Sadie Bjornsen and Novie McCabe.
• It’s expected that there would be coaches and scouts from college running programs at the state meet, and one of those found the Liberty Bell tent shortly after the boys’ 1B/2B race. Your hint: Go Cougs!
• Thanks for the warning department: After watching a number of girls fall in the same spot as Liberty Bell’s Albright through the B, 1A and 2A girls’ races, course officials, just in time for the boys’ events, found a set of traffic cones to set up as a warning of the hazard.