EUGENE — Baker came to Saturday’s Class 4A Cross-County State Championships at Lane Community College gunning for a trophy.
Though the Bulldogs left without one in hand, following a sixth-place finish with 168 points by the girls team and a fifth-place finish with 99 points by the boys, which was one heartbreaking point shy of the fourth-place trophy, Baker validated itself as a program on the rise.
“It’s exciting to be a part of a really competitive year,” Baker coach Suzy Cole said. “The hardware doesn’t mean anything as far as how much they improved and how successful they were.”
Senior Kale Cassidy was the Bulldogs’ top finisher in the boys race, placing second overall with a personal-best and school-record time of 15 minutes, 57.2 seconds. He finished nine seconds behind state champion John Peckham of Sisters.
Cassidy ended the race with his right hip bloody and muddy after slipping and falling while fighting through traffic a mile in to get into the front group. Still, he saved energy in the first mile and got back to his feet to finish strong.
Cassidy said the team’s goals helped push him.
“I don’t think I would have done it if I wouldn’t have thought, ‘today I’ve got to do this, not just for myself but for my team,’ ” Cassidy said. “You can’t stop in the middle of your most important race of the season. For me, I think this is really important just for us as a team. We’ve come in the past four years from nothing and now we’re way up there.”
Cole watched Cassidy develop from a freshman who hadn’t run cross-country, to having “really exciting” sophomore and junior years, and then battling through some difficulties this season.
“He’s a very academic runner, so he likes to be in control of everything,” Cole said. “And in the middle of the season he couldn’t control some things he wanted to.”
But in the final weeks of the season, Cassidy found he was becoming more comfortable and confident with each race. And by Saturday, Cole could tell just watching him around the opening loop that he was in control.
In the girls race, Sydney Keller paced Baker and finished ninth at 19:14.2 after outkicking Stayton’s Hope Bridge by hundredths of a second.
Keller set her personal record by 25 seconds.
“I knew if I didn’t I’d regret it forever, so I just gave it whatever I had hoping it was enough,” she said of her finish. “It was so great. It’s an amazing feeling.”
A mile into the race, Keller settled into the third pack from the front. With the top eight separating themselves, Cole said she knew Keller would have a chance to reach the top 10 for a spot on the podium.
“You never know what’s going to happen at state,” Cole said. “Sydney is probably one of the gutsiest kids I’ve ever coached. I knew if she was in striking distance she had a really good chance of getting on the podium.”
Including Cassidy and Keller, 12 of Baker’s 14 runners clocked either season- or personal-bests on Saturday. While the Bulldogs reached their goal of finishing in the top six on the girls side, the boys team missed out on its goal of a top four finish by one point to Marist Catholic of Eugene.
The narrow margin was especially frustrating, Cole said, because the Bulldogs ran exactly how she asked them to.
“We ran the perfect day and we were still one point out,” she said. “That’s disappointing just for them because I know how hard they’ve worked. For all of them to run the perfect day, it’s kind of sad.”
But regardless of the finish, Cole said this year’s team has helped to further lay the foundation of the program.
“I think it’s speaking volumes for our program and that our kids are starting to believe they can be contenders,” she said. “It just wasn’t meant for us today.”
Beyond the results Cassidy and the rest of the Bulldogs have brought to the course, they’ve also helped create a family culture within the program.
“I’m hoping we can have a good cross-county family for the next however many years because it’s such an amazing program,” Cassidy said. “My teammates — they’re great people. And they’re people I know I can trust. They’re people who are willing to work for something, and I know that because today we were working together to hopefully win the state meet. I’m just really proud of what we have.”
But for now, Cassidy said he’s going to take a long nap before the team gets ready to compete at the Nike Cross Northwest Regionals in Boise next Saturday.