Move over, football. Cross-country is fall’s main event

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Before we know it, the leaves will turn, the nights will get longer and it’ll be time for the fall sport that captivates thousands of Americans: cross-country.

That’s not a typo.

Yes, cross-country is not the most glamorous sport. Distance running is an inherently individualistic, lonely affair, filled with gangly limbs, sweat-crusted faces and plenty of spit. Bringing up, say, the Coeur d’Alene Invitational is not the most interesting water cooler topic because there’s virtually no room for debate. In running, there’s no such thing as being on the bubble, boosting a resume, constructing a challenging non-conference schedule or RPI. The only variables are weather (which, so I’ve heard, is a big deal up here) and course difficulty — usually determined by elevation and surfaces. Aside from those factors, a time is a time.

Yet the world is changing. Advances in concussion science and the threat of CTE loom over high school football, and while America’s favorite pastime isn’t going away anytime soon, sports like cross-country don’t put its athletes in long-term, neurological jeopardy. And, from a spectator’s standpoint, there’s no guilt in watching kids run. When I will cover cross-country, I won’t be faced with the possibility of writing about someone’s son getting carted off the field with a severe concussion, a compound fracture or worse.

Instead, I’m looking forward to covering a sport in which north Idaho schools have found plenty of success. Last season, seven north Idaho boys and seven girls placed in the top 20 at the IHSAA XC Championships, which like all sports, is usually dominated by southern Idaho schools. Team-wise, north Idaho schools held their own. Both the Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls girls made it to state in a loaded 5A class, and while both finished fifth and sixth, respectively, both teams also return at least five of their top seven runners. Over in 3A, Timberlake’s girls team finished second, their male counterparts finished fourth and the Priest River Lady Spartans finished fourth. Not bad for the most sparse area of the state.

This season will be even more promising than the last. The Post Falls girls team brings back six of its top seven runners from last year; all seven should break 20 minutes in the 5K. Led by rising senior Sydney Shanahan (5:07.99 1600, 11:03 3200) and one of Idaho’s fastest freshman in Samantha Wood, the Trojans will be one of the fastest teams in northern Idaho once again. Granted, they’ll have to compete Mountain View’s all-world runner Lexy Halladay and a Boise team that placed 10th at Nike Cross Nationals last fall, but competing against either Halladay or the Braves is a race for second place.

The most intriguing part of the north Idaho prep running scene is the talent found in smaller towns like Spirit Lake, Bonners Ferry and Sandpoint, where high school programs go toe-to-toe with Boise-area schools despite drawing from a smaller pool of athletes. Over in 4A, Matt and Angie Brass have created a north Idaho distance running juggernaut at Sandpoint. The boys will be led by a two-headed monster in Nikolai Braedt and Jett Lucas ­— both of whom run nearly identical miles (4:27.80 and 4:27.87, respectively), were top-35 runners at the state meet last fall and are on pace to be two of the fastest men in program history. While watching both of them is, to put it lightly, inspiring, seeing Lucas unleash his finishing kick is a sight to behold. Ditto for Sandpoint senior Bionce Vincent, who, despite being a mid-distance specialist, already broke her lifetime-best by running a 20:55 in a charity 5K this summer.

But for now, we wait at the start line. Cross-country season can’t get here any sooner.

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