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Isaiah Wapsheli and Hannah MacDuffee will represent the Buffs in Eugene this weekend.

PMG PHOTO: ANDY DIECKHOFF - Madras High School juniors Isaiah Wapsheli and Hannah MacDuffee both qualified for the 4A state championship, thanks to top-five finishes at the Tri-Valley Championships last week.For Madras High School juniors Isaiah Wapsheli and Hannah MacDuffee, the road to this year's OSAA 4A Cross Country State Championship was a long one — much longer than just one season.

"It feels good," said Wapsheli about qualifying for state. "I feel like it should have been sooner."

Wapsheli placed third in the Tri-Valley championships and secured his spot in the state meet. It will be his first time going to Eugene after placing 31st as a freshman in the 2019 edition of the Tri-Valley finals and being disqualified last season due to an equipment violation.

It should be noted that the Wapsheli name was represented at the state championships last spring. Isaiah's younger sister, Talise, qualified as a ninth-grader by placing fifth at the districts. The siblings train together throughout the season, even when they are competing in different events. The pair also motivate each other and, for Isaiah, his sister's presence is a calming force.

"It just makes me comfortable, honestly," said Wapsheli.

This year, Isaiah will be carrying the flag for the Wapsheli family as the only Madras runner to qualify for state on the boys's side. When the season began, however, it looked like he might not get there.

At the Jere Breese Memorial Ranch Stampede in Prineville, the first race of the season, Wapsheli ran the slowest time of his career to date. Following that race, he improved his time in six consecutive races. After missing a PR by under a second at the Oxford Classic in Bend, the junior reeled off three consecutive personal-best times in Heppner, Estacada and John Day, before running just a step slower at districts last week.

With only the biggest race of the season left on the schedule, Wapsheli is not content to rest on his laurels.

"I want to come back home with a PR," he said. "I broke my streak and I need to get it back."

MacDuffee, meanwhile, sat out the whole season due to an injury she picked up in February of this year. It was a disappointing twist for a runner who qualified for state as a ninth-grader. Now in her junior season, MacDuffee is back with a vengeance.

Across eight races this season, MacDuffee has six second-place finishes and another third-place time. The most recent of those silver-medal performances came in last week's Tri-Valley Championships, setting MacDuffee up for her second trip to state.

Her impressive level of consistency, MacDuffee says, comes from her competitive drive, her training and her improved mental focus.

"In cross country, it's more about racing rather than times," she said. "The course is a big player, obviously, and how you race against the people you're racing with. I think it's more about the competition. I'm getting a lot smarter with my racing. I was injured in February, but after that, I maintained a very consistent level of training."

"Making sure my strategy is on point, and as my old coach used to say, making sure I'm 'squeezing the toothpaste,'" said MacDuffee on how she has remained so successful throughout this season. "Making sure all your effort is laid out on the course."

MacDuffee also noted other important mental aspects of racing, including knowing one's limits and not pushing past them too far or too quickly.

"It's state, so people get carried away," she added, noting that many racers run too hard at the beginning of the important race and tire themselves out in the process. "I just want to run smart."

The last time she went to Eugene for the state championships, MacDuffee placed 58th overall while running her second-fastest time of the season. She was third-best among all Tri-Valley runners and ninth among ninth-graders. It was a promising start, but now MacDuffee is looking for an even better finish.

"I just want to run the best I can," said MacDuffee. "The course is relatively simple. It's straightforward, so I think I can run an even pace."

"I'd love to PR," she added. "I think I can. We'll see. I just want to run my race, basically, and come away feeling like I laid it all out on the course."

No matter what happens this weekend, this will not be the last hurrah for either runner. Both have their senior years still ahead of them.

In fact, there are no seniors on this year's team, so MacDuffee and Wapsheli are the well-respected elders of the program. For head coach Jess Swagger, that means another year of leadership from her top two athletes.

"Isaiah and Hannah are both leaders on the team," said Swagger before Monday's practice. "The other kids really look up to them, and they rise to the occasion. They're both great individuals and dedicated athletes."

That dedication goes beyond the confines of Madras cross country program, too. Swagger noted that both MacDuffee and Wapsheli conduct their own offseason training programs and that the entire cross country team plans to go out for track in the spring. Between all that extra practice and the motivation that her older runners bring to the table, Swagger is already getting excited about next season.

"I'm looking forward to next year already," the coach said. "We have a lot of young runners on our team, so we have a lot of talent coming up. Of course, Isaiah and Hannah will be back next year."

"I'm just really proud of them and proud of the whole team this year," Swagger added.

As bright as the future is for Madras cross country, there is still work to be done this season. The Buffs have two runners going to Eugene, after all, so hope still abounds that a state title might find its way back across the mountain this year.

The 2021 OSAA 4A Cross Country State Championships will be held at Lane Community College in Eugene on Saturday, Nov. 6.

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