St. Helens cross country prepares for what could be an excellent year on the girls side of the league

   The cross country scene in the Northwest Oregon Conference is likely to look decidedly different this fall, with the exit of Sherwood and the introduction of Hillsboro and former Class 4A powerhouse La Salle; the 2013 4A boys’ state champions.

Add in the number of seniors the St. Helens boys’ team graduated last spring, and it makes for a bit of a rebuilding year for the Lions, part of the cycle smaller schools seem to see every few seasons.

“We’re a pretty poor school, have a high rate of free and reduced lunch, and we’re one of the smallest schools in our classification. That’s generally how it goes, generally up and down, up and down,” said head coach Gerry Tinkle, who stepped away as the head track coach in the spring but will stay on to coach the cross country programs.

Tinkle said the preseason workouts and first several events will be key in finding a leader to fill in for graduated standout Bryan Strang, the Lions’ lone representative at the state championships last fall. Strang was not only the program’s fastest athlete, but also an outspoken leader during practices. Even as the 2014 squad went through warmups, Strang could be seen circling the track and practice fields.

“You don’t really replace someone like that,” Tinkle said. “I have a couple guys who are seniors and are going to step it up in the leadership category, but the talent level there will be different.”

Tinkle expects big contributions from seniors Casey Cook and Fuller Worman, both who have been with the program for the last four years and are ready to step into leadership roles.

“They’ve run all summer and have encouraged a lot of the other kids to get out there and do it – a lot of the things that Brian used to do,” he said.

Worman is one of only two returning runners to have placed at the NWOC district meet in October at Blue Lake Park, coming just 19 seconds off his season best to push the Lions tantalizingly close to a fourth-place finish behind Sandy. The other, Richard Sass, was just a freshman at the time, and finished in the top 30.

Perhaps the biggest name, though he didn’t make a splash last season, is returning senior Casey Cooke. Following a spectacular outing at the NWOC district preview last September, Cooke went down with an injury that forced him to sit out the rest of the season. It’s especially disappointing, given that, as of the middle of September, Cooke was literally on Strang’s heels, finishing fourth at the preview behind second-place Strang, with the hopes of being a major contributor.

“Casey was running right behind Brian last year until he got hurt and missed the last third of the season,” Tinkle said. “It remains to be seen how fast Casey will be.”

Other than the top three – Sass, Worman and Cooke – the Lions will have a host of youth to fill the holes on the varsity roster. It’s become a tradition at St. Helens, according to Tinkle, who has seen runners routinely keep up with the bigger programs, in spite of having lower numbers and less resources. The jump from JV to varsity is a massive one, but because so many underclassmen are forced into varsity races early, they’ve got endless experience by the time they reach their senior year.

On the girls’ side, Sherwood’s exit makes for a welcome change in the conference that Tinkle thinks won’t be made up by the entrance of La Salle and Hillsboro’s teams. Like the boys, Tinkle’s girls’ teams also are awash in new names.

“They look really talented, and we lost a lot of girls last year. We lost Patience Marshall and Alyna Habel and Cynthia Fenrich, but we have a lot of really good talent coming back,” Tinkle said. “Number one, Josie Hanna, she’s back and running well. Angela Willson and Genny Luttrell both had really good seasons last year and they’re back, and then we’ve got a whole bunch of new girls, and we’ll see how that goes and who’s in the mix there.”

Tinkle has several races circled already: the Trojan Relays, the George Fox Classic and the district meet on Oct. 22. And while he expects the boys to make strides this year, there are big things in store for the girls’ team.

“The girls, we actually have some depth,” Tinkle said. “We have some good people with experience up front that can match what the top of the league is doing. I think the girls are going to do really, really well this year.”

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