Philomath sophomore Lukas Hernandez had the team's top finish with 14th in 17:28.0. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

EUGENE — When the starter’s pistol signaled the beginning of the 4A boys race Saturday afternoon at Lane Community College, Philomath had just two athletes with any running experience in a state cross-country meet.

And through the first mile, there they were — Leo Pausch and Lukas Hernandez leading the way for the Warriors. To put the situation in perspective, the program had to rebuild around those two sophomores heading into this season.

Even veteran coach Joe Fulton questioned the program’s ability to get a boys team back to state for the 39th time in 40 years. But Philomath beat the odds, finished runner-up at districts to Newport and sent its latest state-qualifying squad south to see how it could fare against the state’s top runners.

“We didn’t even know if we’d make it to state this year at the beginning of the season and we were actually in contention for a fourth-place trophy there for a little while,” Fulton said. “So I’m proud of the boys.”

Pausch and Hernandez went on to finish as the team’s top two runners. Hernandez had a strong finish for 14th in 17:28.0 and Pausch persevered a fall on the course to end up 19th in 17:42.8. As a team, the Warriors were fifth in the team standings — one spot out of earning a trophy.

Hernandez realizes that it was a significant accomplishment for the team to just make it to state.

“This shows me that hard work does pay off and I’m going to be training harder next year,” he said.

Philomath sophomore Leo Pausch looks to the finish line. He placed 19th in 17:42.8. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

Through the first mile, Pausch was running 15th with a time of 5:19 with Hernandez close behind in 19th at 5:22.2.

“My strategy was to hit 5:30 and whatever I had left in the tank I was going to leave it out on this field,” Hernandez said. “On the first mile, I did go out quite fast which is not what I wanted to see but I tried to keep it consistent.”

By the end of the second mile, which he did in 5:43.0, Hernandez had moved up four positions to 15th for the final 1.1 miles. He came in with a strong kick for the 14th-place finish.

“On the last mile, I heard my mom cheering ‘keep digging,’” he said.

Galen Murch, from left, JJ Lewis and Jacob Hernandez recover on the track following Saturday’s race. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

A year ago in Eugene, senior Ben Hernandez placed fifth with a team-best 16:26.9 to help the Warriors to a state runner-up finish. Lukas uses his older brother’s times as motivation to keep improving.

“I’m actually ahead of Ben when he was a sophomore, which is fun to say,” Lukas said, referring to his brother’s time of 17:43.0 at state in 2020. “I’m going to try to keep going for his times and hopefully at the end of my high school career, I’ll break 16.”

The meet took place on a rainy Saturday and the course became more challenging as the day wore on. There were periods of an all-out downpour.

“There were puddles everywhere that I was stepping in,” Hernandez said, “and I thought my shoes were going to fall off. But I had them double-tied.”

Philomath’s Simon King, center, heads toward the finish with Phoenix’s Orlando Contreras, left, and Marshfield’s Jaxson Stovall. King was 36th in 18:09.6. (Photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

As mentioned, Pausch slipped on the course and Fulton said sophomore Mason Stevens did as well.

Senior Simon King, running in just his third high school meet, finished 36th in 18:09.6. King was cleared to compete prior to an Oct. 19 meet at Harrisburg after he had recovered from toe surgery.

Junior JJ Lewis, freshman Jacob Hernandez, freshman Galen Murch and Stevens all finished within 5.9 seconds of each other. Lewis was 59th (18:59.2), Jacob Hernandez 60th (19:01.2), Murch 62nd (19:03.5) and Stevens 63rd (19:05.1). There were an even 100 competitors in the race.

Newport won the meet easily with 49 points, followed by Crook County (87), The Dalles (136) and Molalla (146) for those top four trophy spots. Philomath was fifth with 167 points. Individually, Cottage Grove junior Carter Bengtson came in all alone with a time of 15:49.6.

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.