Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in today’s issue of Glendale Today. For more Glendale stories, view our print editions online at http://glendaletoday.az.newsmemory.com
By Richard Smith
West Valley Preps
Formerly a top cross country school in Arizona, Mountain Ridge fell back to the pack in recent seasons.
Case in point, boys team coaches essentially told the organizers of the multi-state Desert Twilight meet on Sept. 29, “We don’t have results in the Valley to indicate it, but our team is fast enough to compete in the Sweepstakes race.”
Officials did not go for it and slotted the Mountain Lions in the second-tier Championship race. So the team proved itself that night in Casa Grande, finishing second in that race to Denver-area school Cherry Creek.
“Our only times we had recorded were from the Peaks course in Flagstaff. So that’s 7,000 feet of elevation with two giant hills,” senior Reier Gilbertson said. “Our coach tried to email the director and get us into the Sweepstakes. We knew we were fast but they didn’t. It was kind of refreshing to know we placed that high.”
The Mountain Lions’ average time for its top five runners was 16:30, and would have placed Mountain Ridge 19th in the Sweepstakes field.
That does not sound all that impressive until the depth of the sweepstakes field is considered. Only six of those teams with better times were from Arizona, with top 20 teams hailing from Texas, Colorado, California, New Mexico, Washington and Virginia.
Coach Richard Stein said he believed in the ability of this group. Until this summer, though, the dedication wavered.
“There was a group of seven boys dedicated every single day to meeting, even when we didn’t do a camp. I’m happy that they got a (Desert Twilight) medal to validate their workouts. They have something tangible to look at,” Stein said.
Gilbertson is the poster boy for this transformation. He finished fifth at Desert Twilight and has the 20th best time in Division I right now.
Despite being a senior he was virtually unknown entering the season.
“I hadn’t really applied myself to practices as much as I have this past
year,” Gilbertson said. “I’ve taken a PR to every race I’ve been at by a minimum of 30 seconds this year.”
Alongside him, sophomore Hunter Krasa, junior Kristian Bilecki, senior Vivek Ravi and senior Gavin Allen also made a leap in results this year.
While no Mountain Lions sets the pace, they are usually in a pack not far behind.
“We don’t have that huge top five runner. But with having Hunter, Reier and Kristian so close together and Vivek and Gavin not far behind, that’s helping quite a bit,” Stein said.
This success is somewhat new for everyone involved. This is Stein’s fourth year as head coach and seventh year overall.
When he took the reins and current seniors were freshmen, the Mountain Lions placed 10th in 2014. They placed 11th in 2015 and dropped to 15th in 2016.
Gilbertson finished 31st last year, with Bilecki placing 68th and Krasa coming in 121st.
Meanwhile, the Mountain Ridge girls team placed seventh at state last year without a senior in the squad. Naturally, they entered the offseason in the spotlight.
“I would say our coaches were more focused on our girls team at the beginning of the year,” Gilbertson said. “We didn’t get as much attention. So it’s exciting to see how we’ve performed.”
Other runners locked in during offseason training. Stein said Krasa has improved by two or three minutes at each course since his freshman year. Bilecki played club soccer the last two falls, but is focusing only on cross country this year.
Mountain Ridge is unlikely to jump all the way to the top. Phoenix Desert Vista beat all comers to claim the Desert Twilight sweepstakes while Phoenix Brophy Prep remains the top team in Section II.
But the top five may be within reach, as the Mountain Lions are fairly close to Tempe Corona del Sol, Scottsdale Desert Mountain and Chandler.
Former Coach Don Tate, the godfather of Mountain Ridge cross country, still helps the program.
At end of summer time trial, Tate was the first one to notice how much this team improved.
“He made the comment after the time trial that they were going to do well,” Stein said. “What’s nice with that time trial course is we have 10 years of data to look at. We can really figure out where we’re going to be at.”