The skies were pure blue but the dominant colors at the Greater Oregon League cross-country meet Friday afternoon were the purple and gold of Baker High School.
The Bulldogs ran away with the meet on the hilly, difficult course at Quail Ridge Golf Course, pulling off a complete sweep.
Baker won the girls and boys team titles, paced by individual winners Sydney Keller and Kale Cassidy. Cassidy, a senior, won his third straight district title.
Both Baker teams will compete at the Class 4A state meet Saturday at Eugene’s Lane Community College. The girls race starts at 11:45 a.m., the boys at 12:20 p.m.
La Grande finished second in both the girls and boys races, giving the Tigers a berth at the state meet as well.
“We feel very good,” Baker coach Suzy Cole said on the sun-dappled but chilly afternoon. “We knew what we were capable of and I felt very good about the way we competed.”
Keller was excited, too, after winning her first district title in a time of 20:17.
“That was my goal from the beginning,” she said. “I’m just happy that the team is going (to state) together.”
But her joy was tinged with sadness, as La Grande’s top runner, Jacki Martini, became ill the night before the race and wasn’t able to compete.
“I was expecting Jacki to be here,” Keller said.
The pair, both juniors, had some exciting races earlier in the year. Keller beat Martini by 8 seconds in winning the individual title at the Kyle Burnside Wildhorse Invitational in Pendleton on Oct. 17.
Keller said Martini’s absence didn’t affect her race strategy Friday.
“I still was wanting to get out and go,” she said. “I was just trying to take off fast.”
Keller did that. She led from the start, forging a lead of about 19 seconds near the mile and a half mark, and extending it thereafter.
Runner-up Maia Vandervlugt of La Grande finished at 20:56, 39 seconds back.
Keller said she strives to avoid looking back when she’s running in the lead, but she said she took a quick glance at the few 180-degree turns on the Quail Ridge course.
In the last mile, with her lead over half a minute, Keller said she was “just trying to see what I could do. I was trying to focus on the hills — there’s so many here.”
Vandervlugt, a senior, said Martini’s falling ill the night before the meet “shook up our team a little bit.”
“But we still came out and did what we set out to do,” Vandervlugt said, referring to the Tigers finishing second and qualifying for the state meet.
Vandervlugt, who won the district title as a sophomore, has three runner-up finishes.
In the girls team standings Baker captured the district title, with 25 points to La Grande’s 40, by putting all its runners in the top 11.
Corah Downing finished third overall, 13 seconds behind Vandervlugt. Downing had placed fourth at the district meet the previous two years.
Baker runners then took the 6th through 8th place slots — Sydney Lamb, 6th in 21:30; Salena Bott, 7th in 22:04; and Jayden Rice, 8th in 23:01.
Lacey Jones placed 10th and Rebekah Shaw was 11th.
In the boys varsity race Cassidy, like Keller, took the lead early and was never threatened.
He finished in 16:13, 30 seconds ahead of Ontario’s Lance Trees.
“I felt pretty darn good about my race,” said Cassidy, a senior who will be among the favorites for the individual title at the state meet.
Cassidy said he was pushed not only by Trees but also by his Bulldog teammate, Jake Cuzick, who finished third in 16:52.
“Jake was hanging with me for the first mile and a half,” Cassidy said. “That definitely helped me keep a pretty good pace.”
Cassidy said his goal was to finish in less than 16 minutes, and although he fell a bit short of that goal he was pleased with his performance.
“This is a tough course, lots of hills,” he said. “I ran a great race.”
Cuzick’s strong race illustrates why Baker should have a good chance to win the individual team state title Saturday at Lane Community College, Cassidy said.
He said he’s motivated both by the team’s goals and by his own. Cassidy smiled when asked whether he’ll be thinking about his state title in the 3,000-meter race in the track and field season in May.
“That’s definitely a motivator,” he said. “I know I have it in me (to win the cross-country title). Each race is a different race. I might not have my best day. But I’m going to try my best no matter what.”
Cuzick, a junior, said he was a bit surprised to find himself close to Cassidy well into the race Friday.
“I definitely went out faster than I planned to,” he said. “But I was feeling a lot better than I have been.”
Cuzick said he’s been struggling recently with an iron deficiency.
But that wasn’t an impediment Friday, as he not only set a 7-second personal best — unusual on a course as challenging as Quail Ridge — but he cut 55 seconds from his time on the same course during the Baker Invitational Sept. 27.
Cuzick said his 3rd-place finish overall — and second among his teammates — shows the strength of the team as a whole.
“I was fifth on the team two weeks ago,” he said. “Anybody could finish second on this team.”
The results from Friday’s district meet prove Cuzick’s point, as the Bulldogs claimed four of the first five positions.
Cuzick was followed in fourth by sophomore Gavin Stone (17:07) and senior Lucas Stearns in fifth (17:14).
Senior John Niehaus placed 8th (17:38), followed by junior Justin Ash 9th (17:51), and sophomore Hayden Younger 12th (18:09).
Baker’s Natalia Turner won the girls JV race in 23:56. Filippa Krarup was 3rd (25:04), Kaitlyn Waters was 6th (26:01), Payton Jones 8th (26:08) and Zoe Carlson-Morrow placed 10th in 29:59.
In the boys JV race Baker’s Seth Rushton won the individual title in 18:01, coming in more than a minute ahead of runner-up Baker teammate Angel DeArcos (19:05).
Other Baker runners included Jordan Mills, 4th in 19:19; Gabriel Bott, 5th in 19:21; Kyler Hester, 6th in 19:22; Seth Mastrude, 8th in 19:37; Shane Cunningham, 9th in 20:04; Thaddeus Pepera, 10th in 20:36, Eithen Hatfield, 11th in 21:19; Ryan Hansen, 15th in 25:37; and Dan Wachtel, 16th in 26:04.