PHS sophomore Adele Beckstead took first place overall in the varsity girls race. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

With boys and girls rosters that run deep with quality competitors, it really was no surprise that the Philomath High boys and girls cross-country teams both won the top trophies at Saturday’s Oregon West Conference Championships.

The individual victories on their home course by sophomore Adele Beckstead for the girls and senior Ben Hernandez for the boys weren’t surprises either. In fact, neither runner received much of a threat with Beckstead winning by well over a minute and Hernandez pulling away to take first by just over 23 seconds.

But there were a few surprises within those Philomath performances. Seniors Ingrid Hellesto and Brody Bushnell both ran sick but still had top-10 finishes. The girls competed without two varsity runners with Lucy King at an out-of-state family wedding and Kateri Pindell nursing a sprained ankle sustained earlier this week in practice. But Brooke McDaniel and Kyah Weeber filled in nicely as Philomath never missed a beat.

Then there was freshman Lukas Hernandez. He pulled off perhaps the biggest surprise of the day with a fifth-place showing that featured his first-ever 5K under 18 minutes.

“Where did that come from? He’s usually our No. 6 or 7,” Fulton said. “I think he was our No. 7 guy at the last meet and today he finished first-team all-league and was fifth — and it was like a minute faster than he’s been running all year.”

The top seven runners at the OWC meet earn first-team all-league status.

PHS freshman Lukas Hernandez eyes the finish line. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Lukas Hernandez’s previous best had been an 18:03.5 that he ran on a fast course in Salem.

“But since then, he’s been hanging around 19 minutes and today he was 17:43,” Fulton said. “We needed that.”

It’s those types of performances that could push Philomath to a state title next weekend in Eugene.

“That’s what we need because The Dalles, they had a couple of guys that had huge PRs and shook it up a little bit,” said Lukas’s older brother, Ben Hernandez, referring to the Tri-Valley Conference Championships that took place this past Wednesday. “Knowing Lukas is going to be able to possibly be our fifth man scoring for us, that would be pretty cool.”

Another pleasant surprise this season among the younger runners has been freshman Leo Pausch, who placed fourth overall.

“He’s such a great kid, he works so hard so it’s nice to see him be able to make first-team all-league his first time out there (at districts),” Fulton said. “So we’ll have two first-team all-league freshmen coming back … that bodes well for next year because we lose a lot of guys.”

PHS senior Ben Hernandez took first place by 23.3 seconds over the runner-up. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Boys place all 7 runners among top 12

Philomath easily won the team title for the boys with 22 points. Individually, the Warriors occupied four of the top five spots and their fifth came in 10th. In all, Philomath’s seven varsity runners placed among the top 12.

Ben Hernandez came in with a time of 16:28.3 for the win. Senior Mateo Candanoza was second at 16:51.6, Pausch placed fourth at 17:29.3 and Lukas Hernandez was fifth in 17:43.9. Bushnell finished 10th in 18:05.8.

The No. 6 runner, senior Jesse Erickson, was right behind in 11th at 18:15.2. And senior Kellen Houchin was 12th in 18:22.6. Bushnell, Erickson and Houchin ran together for most of the race before some separation occurred late.

At the Paul Mariman Invitational three weeks ago, Ben Hernandez finished second with a sit-and-kick approach to his strategy. This time around, he tackled the course in a more aggressive manner.

“This was more of tweaking the tactics, really pushing that second mile to get space in that gap so I could just cruise my way in,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez has no fears when it comes to the pressure that comes along with state. He’s intent on performing at a top level.

“I’ve put in the work in the offseason and I’ve put in the work during the season,” he said. “So, it’s just another meet … that’s how you’ve got to think about it.”

PHS senior Mateo Candanoza comes around the final turn. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Individually, Hernandez and Candanoza should be in the hunt for top-five finishes. Marshfield senior Alexander Garcia-Silver is expected to win easily with times that are roughly a minute faster than his nearest competitors.

Fulton believes Hernandez and Candanoza can make first-team all-state — which would be top seven — and if the rest of the team all make top 30, the Warriors should be able to match up pretty well against The Dalles.

“Definitely at state, there’s going to be a whole pack of us,” Hernandez said.

For the freshman Pausch, he said the season has been overwhelming to the extent that it’s gone much better than anticipated.

“The first few races were fast and I don’t think I was quite prepared for them,” Pausch said. “Two weeks ago, I felt my legs kinda like settled in and I feel like I’m ready to go now.”

Pausch’s time at the OWC meet was a PR by about 2 seconds. In fact, his times have improved each time out over the past four meets.

“I feel like this is our shot because next year, five seniors on our varsity team will graduate so next year is going to be a lot more difficult,” Pausch said about the upcoming state meet. “So we are trying to make this one as good as it can be.”

Fulton is a veteran coach who’s pretty much seen everything in high school cross-country.

PHS freshman Leo Pausch emerges from the woods. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

“Our depth is what’s going to carry the day for us,” Fulton said about the state meet, which is scheduled for Saturday at 11:45 a.m. for the girls and 12:20 p.m. for the boys. “If we’re to win both titles next week, we’ll have to take advantage of our depth.”

Fulton knows which teams they’ll have to beat on the Lane Community College course.

“We’re singularly focused — our boys on The Dalles and the girls on La Grande and we’re going to treat it like a dual meet,” Fulton said. “We get down there and focus on those runners and just beat them and we should win the state titles because there’s no other team in the state that compares to Philomath and The Dalles or Philomath and La Grande — there’s just a big gap after that.”

PHS sophomore Adele Beckstead has the third-best time in 4A this season. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath’s girls place 5 in the top 9

Beckstead ran alone for a dominating performance in the girls’ race. When she entered Clemens Field for a lap around the track to the finish line, the second-place runner was nowhere to be seen.

“Adele had a fantastic race as usual,” Fulton said. “I mean, she’s a great front runner. Not too many kids can pull that off. It’s a lot easier for good runners to wait and kick but she just doesn’t mess around.”

Beckstead runs the course in such a way that it can be demoralizing to her competitors.

“She just gets out in front and maintains form,” Fulton said. “The runners behind look at her and they don’t think she’s tiring out. She’s a great front runner … she’ll be a contender next week.”

La Grande junior Emily Tubbs has the fastest time in 4A this season with Molalla freshman Anika Jenson 4 seconds back and Beckstead just over 7 seconds back.

“I feel like if we all just go out and run our best like any other race, then things will work out as they do,” Beckstead said. “I’m just going to go out and run my best … it’s a good course.”

PHS freshman Ana Candanoza enters Clemens Field for the stretch run of the varsity race. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

PHS freshman Ana Candanoza placed fifth overall in 21:11.1. Sophomore Hallie Morrison was right behind her in sixth at 21:11.8. Hellesto took seventh in 21:26.2. The team’s fifth point scorer was sophomore Hanna McDaniel, who was ninth in 21:46.8.

Rounding out the lineup was sophomore Brooke McDaniel (11th, 22:01.8) and Weeber (19th, 23:28.3).

Like the boys, the girls will need to utilize their depth to earn the team trophy. Nobody knows that better than Hellesto, who will be competing at her fourth straight state meet.

“I think we’re doing pretty well about realizing just because we’re winning all of the races now, state is going to be completely different,” Hellesto said. “We’re always in that mindset of we have to race hard for every race.”

PHS senior Ingrid Hellesto is the lone senior on the varsity roster. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

As the lone senior on the varsity, Hellesto falls into the natural role of team leader. She said she tries to fill that need.

“Before every race, we do a little team meeting, just a little encouragement,” she said. “I think it really does boost morale for all if we’re encouraging each other, so I just try to promote that.”

The trick at state will to remain in the zone out there on the LCC course.

“We’re definitely focusing on ourselves but Joe always tells us to keep an eye on that jersey (in front of us), so that’s what we’re doing,” Hellesto said.

Fulton said he expects both King and Pindell to be back for the state meet.

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.