Cross-country practice
Brody Bushnell and Grant Hellesto lead a pack of runners during cross-country practice Monday. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Calling out to Brody Bushnell and Jesse Erickson to come and join the rest of the team while they ran nearby during practice on Monday afternoon, cross-country coach Joe Fulton wanted to go over proper running form with his athletes.

At first, the two Philomath High sophomores didn’t seem to hear their coach — perhaps playfully ignoring him or maybe pushing themselves during a timed workout. Bushnell has trained hard during these long months of the pandemic to be in top condition. Erickson, a former soccer player and newcomer to cross-country, has built up his endurance with much of his training time coming alongside Bushnell.

“I think the most difficult part has been keeping the kids motivated to train regularly because of all the uncertainty — is there really going to be a season? Are we really going to be able to race? Do we have to race with masks on all the time?” Fulton said.

A month ago when it became certain that cross-country would have a season, the pace picked up, Fulton said. And the work to get into top condition will continue well into the season — a must if Philomath wants to have a shot at repeating as Class 4A state champions.

“I’m just using the meets as part of our training program,” Fulton said about a schedule of five competitions leading up to districts. “Most of these kids are not in that great of shape, so we’ll just race into shape.”

Fulton called Bushnell the team’s No. 1 runner heading into this season. During his freshman campaign, Bushnell ran his best time at the state meet with a ninth-place finish in 16 minutes, 20.2 seconds.

“He took it most seriously during the winter and trained hard,” Fulton said. “He’s been running close to 50 miles a week; he’s in good shape and nobody’s really close to him right now.”

Seniors Grant Hellesto (16th at state last season in 16:24), Justin Enghauser (18th, 16:27) and Sean Cummings (27th, 16:47) all return to Philomath’s roster. However, Fulton said there’s some pretty good intrasquad battles going on to see which runners make it on the varsity.

“I have about nine guys that could make the varsity team,” Fulton said. “When you have that many guys fighting for seven spots, it only helps because they start running harder to make sure they make the team.”

Beyond Hellesto, Enghauser and Cummings, the Warriors also return Levi Knutson for his senior year.

“Levi’s improved a lot — he looks like he might be our No. 2 or No. 3 runner already,” Fulton said. “A big surprise for us has been Jesse Erickson … he’s been running really well in practice.”

Sophomores Ben Hernandez and Mateo Candenoza are dual-sport athletes who are also in the mix.

“It’s a matter of how often will we see them,” Fulton said. “Will they be able to keep up with the guys that are running with us all the time? They certainly have the talent to do that.”

Senior Jace Barrett is another runner who has shown improvement over last season and could be a prospect to slip into the top seven,.

Senior George House, junior Bryan Thomas, sophomores Maxwell Carter and Micah Matthews, and freshman Aidan Bruce round out the roster. In all, Philomath has 14 boys on the team.

Levi Knutson
PHS senior Levi Knutson stretches out during practice on Monday. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

To have a shot at the Oregon West title and ultimately, the 4A crown, Philomath will need to beat Sisters.

“We saw them last October, November and they’ve got a heck of a 1-2-3 punch,” Fulton said. “So we just have to make sure we put the bulk of our runners in front of their fourth and fifth runners if we want to have a chance to beat them again … they’re going to be tough.”

Beyond those fourth and fifth spots, Fulton hopes to see Bushnell stick with Sisters seniors John Peckham and Will Thorsett. Peckham won the individual state title in 2019.

“That’s important that we have a runner that might be able to stay up with the top two Sisters guys,” Fulton said, “because we need somebody to finish fairly close to those two if we want to have a chance.”

The season opens Thursday with a trip to Florence for a three-way meet with Siuslaw and Tillamook.

“I wanted to do the Thursday (meet) because Tillamook and Siuslaw are two of the best teams in the state,” Fulton said. “We need to be able to take them on if we’re going to be able to take on Sisters and Klamath Union. So, it’s a real good test for our boys.”

The Paul Mariman Invitational will not happen this season with the home course in rough shape. The district meet is scheduled for April 3 at Sweet Home and 4A schools are working on the details to put together a state meet, either in Eugene or Tillamook (the Oregon School Activities Association is not running state meets but left it up to the schools to organize their own).

Diana Bushnell and Tyler Thomas will again assist Fulton with coaching this season.

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