PHS coach Joe Fulton explains the route the team is about to run during practice earlier this week. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Falling one point short of the Class 4A state title at last season’s cross-country finale in Eugene, the Philomath girls appear to be in position to again challenge for the top trophy. The Warriors return five of their top seven runners.

To make things even more interesting, the team that beat Philomath by that single point last fall, Siuslaw, dropped down to Class 3A — although reclassification also appears to have brought in some tough competition. 

Veteran Philomath coach Joe Fulton’s not taking anything for granted.

Adele Beckstead, left, and Ingrid Hellesto bring back a solid 1-2 punch for the girls. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “Some of the girls didn’t see the urgency in it over the summer and didn’t put the miles in that they should have. So now it’s a matter of getting them in shape. I think we can get them there by the end of October and they’ll be in contention but there are a lot of unknowns out there.”

Fulton’s referring to the half-dozen new schools in 4A that have dropped down from 5A.

The team’s top two returning runners are sophomore Adele Beckstead and senior Ingrid Hellesto — both placing in the top 10 at state last year.

“I like our chances — Adele is in good shape, Ingrid’s always tough and then we’ve just got this knot of girls,” Fulto said. “We didn’t get everybody out that I was hoping we’d get out. We have to obviously make up for the loss of (graduated) Kaeleigh Houchin, who was our No. 3 runner last year, but I think we’ll do it.”

Sophomores Kateri Pindell, Hanna McDaniel and Hallie Morrison all ran at state last season and are among the returnees.

Last season, Fulton had to take a hard look at his varsity lineup from meet to meet. That will be the case again this season to figure out those last five runners.

“We’ve got a very good freshman that looks like she’s going to make varsity,” Fulton said. “It’s not easy to crack varsity with the number of talented sophomores that we have.”

In all, there are 18 girls in the program.

On the 4A scene, Fulton said Baker and La Grande both have good programs with all-state runners returning and he also mentioned Phoenix as a possible threat.

“I really don’t see anything in our league that’s going to give us trouble. That’s the main reason we do invitationals instead of league meets — so we can see the good teams,” Fulton said.

Ben Hernandez, left, Brody Bushnell and Mateo Candanoza are the top three runners for the PHS boys. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Boys with senior-heavy roster

The Philomath High School boys cross-country team expects to be in the running for a Class 4A state title this season. Brody Bushnell and Mateo Candanoza return as the program’s top two runners and with Ben Hernandez and Jesse Erickson not too far behind, the Warriors will put up some points.

All four of those runners will be competing in a PHS cross-country uniform for the final time.

“We absolutely have to win state on the boys’ side — almost all seniors,” Fulton said. “I mean, our varsity boys team will probably be five seniors, one sophomore and one freshman and it’s do-or-die for those guys.”

Sophomore Warwick Bushnell is one of the team’s top returning runners as well and sophomore JJ Lewis got some state meet experience last year after Brody Bushnell fell ill and senior Mark Grimmer couldn’t compete. As a team, the Warriors were seventh.

Fulton said the top runners came into fall camp in good form.

“Ben is in excellent shape and Mateo and Brody are in the kind of shape that I hoped they’d be in at the beginning of the season,” Fulton said. “I mean, Ben’s ready to run state right now.”

Freshman Leo Pausch has caught Fulton’s eye.

“He’s very tough … he’s not a gazelle like those three (Hernandez, Candanoza, Bushnell) but he works hard and he stays up there,” Fulton said. “A big surprise for us is (senior) Seth Arthurs. He never ran cross-country before … he obviously trained over the summer and came out ready to help us. So he’s right there with Warwick, Leo and Jesse.”

Philomath will have home-course advantage the week prior to state by hosting the Oregon West Conference Championships on Oct. 29. The 4A state meet will again be staged at Lane Community College in Eugene.

“The Dalles, Cottage Grove and there are always some surprises in the south — Hidden Valley, Klamath Union, they could step up,” Fulton said when asked about the top contenders in 4A. “Cottage Grove … they’ve got a couple of really good runners but I don’t think they have our depth. The Dalles, they’ve got a superb No. 1 runner that could contend for first at state and if they can back him up, they’ll be in contention.”

Cottage Grove, by the way, is coached by one of Fulton’s former athletes at Philomath in Ricky Knutson.

Joe Fulton is in his 27th year as Philomath High’s head cross-country coach. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The Warriors open the season Saturday in what has been the traditional opener in recent years with the Ultimook Race at Hydrangea Ranch near Tillamook. Among the new meets on this year’s schedule are the Saxon Invite at Bush Park in Salem, the Country Fair Classic (for the first time since 2016) at the Oregon Country Fairgrounds near Veneta and the Ragtag Relay down at Cottage Grove.

Philomath’s Paul Mariman Invitational is scheduled for Oct. 8 and it’s going to be bigger than ever.

“Everybody wants to come and I turned down all of the 5A and 6A schools that tried to sign up, so it’s only for 4A and below. I think we have 35 high schools and maybe a dozen middle schools. Virtually all of the top teams in the state will be there.”

Fulton has 18 runners in the boys’ program. Diana Bushnell and Tyler Thomas return to the program this year as assistant coaches.

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

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.