Sailors cross-country team savors ride to state

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It's safe to say the Steamboat Springs High School cross-country team is unique among the Sailors fall sports squads.

The athletes don't run anywhere without the "distance stick," a regular wooden staff a team member picked up off the side of the road a few years ago, now accented by a few beads and leather adornments.

Most of the runners' favorite memories from the season involve tackling coaches into muddy water, and the team donned Halloween costumes Wednesday afternoon for its after-school workout.

But more than a quick-to-laugh attitude and carefree practices have defined Steamboat cross-country in 2009, and it's that which the team will celebrate Saturday as it runs in the state cross-country meet at Fossil Ridge High School in Fort Collins.

"Whatever these guys can do, that will be great," Steamboat coach Andy Reust said. "They will run their best, no doubt. They have improved each of the last three weeks."

In the ideal world, the team will be able to slug its way into the top 10. The Steamboat squad qualified third in its region, earning the weekend's trip to the Front Range. It's led by senior Gus Allen, who was fifth in the region, Jack Burger, who finished sixth, and Asher Rohde, who was 12th.

All three have recorded times capable of placing high at the massive season-ending meet, but none expect Saturday's race to be about times.

"We're expecting muddy, muddy, muddy," Allen said. "I was hoping for one more chance to run a really fast time, but now it will probably be too wet."

But, again, coaches and athletes agreed, on this team and on this trip, accomplishment won't be measured in minutes and seconds.

The seven runners the team will field - Allen, Burger and Rohde will be joined by Jack Sperry, Scott Powers, Hunter Thompson and Byron Brane - are as different from one another as the cross-country team as a whole is from the rest of the Steamboat fall teams.

Allen and Thompson have helped lead as the team's seniors, but both are out for their first season of cross-country in three years. They ran as freshmen, skipped two years and have returned.

Rohde accounts for the majority of the team's returning experience and is one of only two Sailors who have previously run at state. His most lasting memory from last year's trip was when a woman cut across the trail and bowled over him as she tried to find a place to cheer on her own team.

Reust said Powers grew, found a home with the team and fought all year to lower his times.

Sperry and Burger, meanwhile, fought all year just to make practice. Both already have played in the state postseason this fall, Sperry with the Steamboat soccer team and Burger at the state tennis tournament.

They all made it through a season of practices where the most memorable were often the most difficult. A day at Howelsen Hill in the rain stood out, as did a required 20 400-meter runs. Now they're ready to finish it off.

"I feel like this is the gravy," Allen said about the final week of practice and state meet.

As for Saturday's strategy, everyone knows how crazy state can get, and all the first-timers expect to be wowed by the size and intensity of the crowd and the skill and speed of the competition.

They all know to start fast, run hard and finish strong.

And they know, for this team, the day's success won't be measured solely on where that effort factors in against all the other schools.

"The whole season was fun," Thompson said. "Now we're turbo pumped. Hell yeah, we're ready for this."

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