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Junior Olympic runners finish well 'Cross country runners have good showing at national championships'

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SPOKANE, Wash. – Young cross country runners from 48 states recently gathered in Spokane to compete in the Dec. 9 National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships at Plantes Ferry Recreation Park. American Indian youngsters were well-represented, with a number of teams from the Southwest entered along with others running unattached. Preliminary competitions throughout the country eventually lead to 15 regional championships and then on to this national championship.

Early projections estimated about 3,000 young athletes would compete in Spokane, but actual counts showed closer to 2,000.

Temperatures were in the mid-30s as the first racers lined up. Snow blanketed the area, but the course had been cleared of snow and traction was no problem. The course dipped and climbed and wound back on itself throughout its length. The competition was divided into five age categories in two-year increments, beginning with 10 and under and reaching to 18. Younger runners competed at three kilometers, intermediate ages at 4k and the oldest runners ran a 5k race.

Native teams included the Rez Runners from the Tuba City/Moenkopi area of Arizona, the Navajo Elite Team and the Fort Wingate team with 10 runners. Acoma Pueblo had a team, as did Jemez Pueblo’s Walatowa Running Club, with 24 runners in total.

Rick Krause coaches the 16-member Navajo and Hopi Rez Runners. Its Bantam Boys members finished No. 9 in the nation with their top runner, Albert Fuller, finishing at 53rd. To be eligible for a team award, a team must have at least five runners in any division.

Other Native youth also did exceptionally well in that division. Naataanii Todea from the Navajo Elite Team finished No. 6 overall; his teammate, Milland Thomas, was No. 48. Acoma runner Jacob Sanchez placed at 19th in the nation. Joshua Garcia from Acoma and Bryan Sam, with Navajo Elite, also finished in the top 100 at No. 71 and No. 81 respectively.

“The kids ran extremely well for their first time at nationals,” Krause said. “The competition is so much more aggressive, but now we know what we need to do next year. We also have a small population to draw from, and we’re competing against teams from San Diego and the state of Idaho with many more people, but we had more support from parents than those larger teams.”

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Josephine Bancroft was one of the adults accompanying the Rez Runners. “We raised over $2,000 through donations, sponsors from town, help from parents and lots of bingo games and food sales. You name it, we’ve done it,” she said.

Plans are already under way for next year’s national finals in Kansas. “We need more sponsors and we need to start raising money now,” Bancroft said, adding that they are starting their runners at the kindergarten level. A new program, this is only the second year they’ve competed as a team and most of the runners are in day school.

Sherwin Sando coaches the Walatowa Running Club. It’s his first year of coaching. “This was one of our most impressive teams. We had three girls in the top 100 in the Bantam Division [Kalei Yepa, Meredith Yepa and Valene Madalena] and also had three boys in the top 100 in the Youth Division [Troy Madalena, Steven Mora and Jesse Madalena].” That girls’ team finished No. 11 and the boys finished No. 14. The girls’ team also finished No. 17 in the Youth Division with the highest individual being Kiana Gachupin at No. 106.

Sando compared the Walatowa team to last year by saying that this year they began with 44 runners and that 36 qualified for regional championship competition. That was further pared down to 24 that qualified for this national championship compared to just seven last year. “I told them we’ll take baby steps and see what the competition is like and we’ll go on from there.” He challenged them to try to make it into the top 50, “but I was happy with the results.”

Other runners in the Bantam Girls category finishing in the top 100 nationally included Muriel Sage Waukaz, from Cuba, N.M., who finished second. Felicia Patricio from Sky City was No. 51, and Rez Runner teammates Brianna Loughran and Mateja Yazzie finished 45th and 78th respectively.

The highest-placing Native runner in the Midget Girls division was Kairee Silas from the Rez Runners, at No. 65. Her teammate, Mikayla Hudgins, also broke into the top 100 at No. 98, and overall their team finished 13th. Other top 100 runners included Felicia Chavez from Cuba, N.M., at No. 67 and Yanabah Jaques with the Navajo Elite Team at No. 81. The top finishers for Fort Wingate were Lacey Becenti and Tanya Belone at 162nd and 163rd respectively, but their team finished 18th in the country.

Few Native runners competed in the older divisions, although Robert Lovato from Sky City finished at 91st place in the oldest division for young men.

To reach nationals, runners first must qualify through both preliminary and regional championships, so reaching nationals is an honor in itself. Native runners competed very well and, with interest rising, even better finishes can be expected in the future.