There was an awful lot of Laker blue on the podium at the Northern Division III/IV regional championships.
While the defending champion North Tahoe boys dominated their competition at Reno’s Rancho San Rafael Park this past Saturday, sweeping the top four spots and five of the top six to claim the regional title, the North Tahoe girls used a well-rounded performance to narrowly eke out a win over four-time defending state champion Incline.
“The boys are looking pretty good,” said longtime North Tahoe cross-country coach Warren Mills, using the most modest understatement he could find. “I’m also happy with all my girls. But I’m not surprised by anything. They’re that solid.”
Senior defending state champ Noah McDermott was about as unbeatable as they come. McDermott covered the hilly, 5-kilometer course in a time of 16:32, which was exactly one minute faster than his regional title time a year ago (17:32), and only two seconds off the pace set by Northern Division I champ Kai Benedict of McQueen (16:24).
“It’s all about summer training,” McDermott said when asked about his improvement in a year. “I put in about 40 miles per week during the summer and now it’s showing.”
McDermott was soon joined by familiar company at the finish line.
North Tahoe senior Shane Christian finished runner-up in a time of 17:20 — which would have been fast enough for a regional title a year ago — while senior Peter Holmes finished third in 17:36 and junior James Palacio was fourth in 18:01. Rounding out the Lakers’ top five scores, sophomore Julien Bordes came across in sixth place, in 18:12.
Ethan Hardacre of Sage Ridge slipped into fifth place (18:09) to break up a clean sweep of the top five. Nevertheless, the Laker boys won by a landslide, posting a low score of 16 to second-place Sage Ridge’s 86 and third-place Incline’s 90.
“This year the boys are as good as any team in any division,” Mills said. “It’s been fun. It hasn’t been hard to coach, that’s for sure.”
As a testament to the Lakers’ team depth, all seven runners finished among the top 11. Sophomore Cam Goldstone finished ninth in 18:25 and senior Brandon Hackett was 11th in 18:38. The boys will enter the state championship meet this Saturday at Rancho San Rafael Park as the clear-cut favorites.
“It’s the best,” McDermott said of being part of such a strong team. “I love winning individually, but winning as a team means more to me. We’ve worked hard the last two months.”
North Tahoe’s girls had a little more competition in the form of the rival Highlanders, winners of the past four consecutive state championships.
In a breakout performance, North Tahoe freshman Quinn Lehmkuhl, who’s been the Lakers’ second runner most of the season, raced to the individual regional title in a time of 20:31. Sophomore teammate Sophia Tallarigo finished second in 20:59, while Incline sophomore Hannah Laurie rounded out the top three in 21:30.
Defending regional and state champion Tara Gallant, a junior, placed fourth in a time of 21:55, and sophomore Stephanie Homola of Incline was fifth in 22:48.
North Tahoe sophomore Holly Lewis and junior Ingrid Roske proved to be the difference-makers, however, as both runners made crucial passes in the final 50 yards to finish 12th (24:00) and 13th (24:04), respectively.
That helped lead the Lakers to the regional title with a low score of 32 to Incline’s 39. Sierra Lutheran was third with 86.
The close finish sets up a state championship showdown Saturday, not only between the North Tahoe and Incline girls, but also The Meadows from Southern Nevada, which swept the top five spots at its regional meet to win with a low score of only 15.
“They’re really strong,” Mills said of The Meadows, “but I think they match up well with us. We’re kind of the same. We have three great runners, and they have two. But the hard thing about trying to compare times is, the Southern times are on fast, flat courses. So I just throw them out the window. I know what my kids do on this course, and this is the one that matters.”
The Laker girls are shooting for an eighth state championship under Mills, which ranks third in NIAA history. The boys are looking to add an NIAA record 17th state title to their collection (they once won eight straight from 1991 to 1998).
Asked if he thinks the boys can exceed their state championship dominance from last year, in which they won with a low score of 19 — second in NIAA history only to their own 15, set in 1996 — Mills said: “They can do whatever they want to do.”
Steve Puterski of the Lahontan Valley News contributed to this report.