Season preview: Boys cross-country roster thinner but Bushnell could be the best in 4A

Over the past two seasons, Brody Bushnell’s running talents have represented the icing on the cake when it comes to Philomath High boys cross-country. Bushnell placed ninth during the state title season of 2019 and followed up with seventh at this past spring’s 4A championships.

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Although depth is the deciding factor when it comes to Philomath’s strong team finishes, you could say that Bushnell has been the face of the program with his consistent performances. His chances for an individual title this fall as a junior appear to be very good considering the fact that all six runners that finished ahead of him at the last state meet were seniors.

“He’s the No. 1 runner in the state and he’ll be the favorite to win state,” PHS veteran coach Joe Fulton said. “He’s in good shape. I’ll be surprised if he gets beat at all this year.”

Heading into this season, Bushnell and junior Mateo Candanoza represent the program’s top two runners. Candanoza had a strong finish over the last few meets of the shortened season — he was 12th at state — and he followed up with exceptional performances in the 3,000-meter run during track season, placing fifth at state behind four seniors.

“Mateo’s the top returning 3,000-meter runner in the state so there’s a lot of expectation on him to place really high at the state cross-country meet,” Fulton said. “Theoretically, we think he could finish second. But Siuslaw’s got its whole team back with some young middle distance runners that can outkick him if he doesn’t get a good lead on them.”

Beyond Bushnell and Candanoza, Fulton listed juniors Ben Hernandez and Jesse Erickson as the team’s No. 3 and No. 4 runners heading into this fall.

“Ben Hernandez is running well; I think winning the state wrestling title helped his confidence, he’s right there with Mateo,” Fulton said. “And then our next two guys would be Jesse Erickson and a freshman, Warwick Bushnell.”

In recent days, senior Mark Grimmer joined the program and had a respectable time in practice to suggest that he may be a varsity runner.

One thing that could potentially complicate matters is that Candanoza, Hernandez, Erickson and Grimmer are all on the boys soccer team. Although it’s not typically an issue — Fulton schedules almost all of their meets on Saturdays when the soccer team does not play — it could be a problem when the district meet arrives on Oct. 28.

“Right now Woodburn’s scheduled to host it and they want to host it on a Thursday down at Lane (Community College, Eugene) at 3 o’clock,” Fulton said. “Well, our boys soccer team has a game at 4 o’clock against Newport. I’m not the only one in that boat — Stayton, Cascade and Newport all have dual-sport athletes as well and none of them want to have the meet on a Thursday. We traditionally have it on a Saturday.”

Fulton said he and the coaches from those other programs are asking Woodburn to consider another date or time.

“We’re fighting to get it changed to an earlier time or a different day or even a different venue,” Fulton said.

That issue aside, Class 4A coaches ranked Philomath at No. 2 in a preseason poll recently published by OSAAtoday. With the seniors that were lost to the program, Fulton believes the ranking illustrates the type of respect that Philomath has earned over the years.

“We lost four guys that were top varsity guys, three of them were all-state,” Fulton said. “To lose that many good runners and then be ranked No. 2 in the very first poll shows a level of respect that Philomath kids get from coaches around the state. They don’t know how good we’re going to be.”

Bushnell, Candanoza and Hernandez were all part of the state runner-up team last spring. Levi Knutson, Grant Hellesto, Justin Enghauser and Sean Cummings all graduated.

“The boys are a lot thinner than they were last year … we don’t have the depth that we had,” Fulton said. “… It’s pretty obvious we have five guys that are varsity level right now. And then there’s a battle between another five to maybe be our sixth and seventh runners.”

Since Fulton shared those comments, Grimmer joined the program and it appears he will have an immediate impact based on how he timed during practice. Still, the boys are not as deep overall.

“It’s nothing like the last few years where we’ve had eight or nine guys to choose from and any of them could have made the top five,” Fulton said. “This year, we just don’t have the turnout on the boys’ side that we’ve had in the past. A small freshman and sophomore class is what’s causing it.”

On Fulton’s staff, Diana Bushnell returns as the assistant coach and Tyler Thomas contributes as a volunteer assistant.

The team opens the season Saturday at The Ultimate Race near Tillamook. The Paul Mariman Invitational in Philomath is set for Oct. 9.

“We’ve got 35 high schools signed up and 20 middle schools,” Fulton said about the home meet. “As long as COVID doesn’t get worse and we don’t have restrictions, we’re going to have a big, big meet — probably one of the biggest meets we’ve ever held here.”

The cross-country course took a beating during work that’s taken place over the past several months on that part of the school district property but Fulton said it’s looking very good now and can handle a big meet.

Philomath will compete in the CG Bramble Scramble for the first time, a meet hosted by Cottage Grove. Ricky Knutson, a former cross-country standout for the Warriors, is the head coach at Cottage Grove. Leland Fulton, another former running standout and Joe Fulton’s son, is a Lions assistant after recently joining the school’s teaching staff.

The state meet is scheduled for Nov. 6 and returns to Lane Community College in Eugene.


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