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Girls' side has a a great chance to place high at 3A/2A/1A Special District 5 meet.

PIONEER FILE PHOTO - Culver senior Emma Knepp (front) placed seventh at last year's 3A/2A/1A Special District 5 Championships and recorded a personal best time. She, along with returning senior Hannah Orey, will be likely contenders at the district meet this year in Pendleton.
For many athletes who run cross country, the sport is simply a springboard to another form of competition.

That was a belief that Culver cross country coach Tom Kirk once held, when he ran cross country in high school to get ready for wrestling season. But what started as a training regimen turned into Kirk's favorite sport, so much so that he went on to run cross country in college.

As head coach of the Bulldogs, he doesn't expect everyone to follow that same path, but instead hopes that they enjoy running and for some, get in better shape for another sport.

"If everybody on the team can stay healthy, have a season where they get stronger, faster and just feel more fit, just feel good at the end of the season, that's number one for me," Kirk said. "Then they can say, 'Now I'm ready for basketball, wrestling and then later, spring track' … But right now the main thing is fitness, team enjoyment and getting off to a good start."

He remembers suggesting to then-freshman Jessica Johnson, who also played soccer and basketball, to come out for cross country with only a month until districts. She ultimately did, and after completing her senior season in 2016, became the first Culver cross country athlete during Kirk's tenure to participate all four years.

This season, two more girls, Emma Knepp and Hannah Orey, will join Johnson in that feat, and each is within reach of a high placement at the 3A/2A/1A Special District 5 Championships.

Last season, Knepp just missed out on a chance to run at the State Championships in Eugene.

She ran a personal best time of 20 minutes, 57.8 seconds, placing seventh, while Orey placed 18th and Johnson 29th, which put the Culver girls in fifth place. Even though Knepp and the Bulldogs missed the district qualifying cutoff point (the top four individuals and top two teams go on to state), they showed marked improvement from seasons past.

"We were not one of the top two teams, but we've kind of progressed from being towards the bottom to middle of the pack and closer," Kirk said.

The Culver boys, meanwhile, didn't have enough athletes to field a complete team last season, and graduated two seniors Christopher Munoz-Toledo and Hector Leal. Kirk is leaving the door open for others to come out and give the sport a try.

The Bulldogs open the season Sept. 2 at the Ultimook Nike Invitational in Tillamook, a coastal course that many Culver athletes, somewhat to Kirk's surprise, favor more than the fast, flat ones.

"Tillamook is the one I was willing to say, 'It's a long way, (but) it's early in the season,'" Kirk said. "You go through the mud and then you go up a very slippery hill. Lots of people are laughing and putting their shoe back on. You cannot proceed through that course without your shoe on your foot. We were duct taping shoes on feet like everybody else from season one when we started going there."

Similar to their track season, in which most district opponents aren't conveniently located, the Bulldogs will compete in many races closer to home, including the Sisters Outlaws Folk Festival Invite, the Kah-Nee-Ta Invitational and the Oxford Classic in Bend, to name a few.

Contact Will Denner at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Follow him on Twitter @MadrasSports, @WillCDenner

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