On Saturday morning, November 1, Salt River Junior High’s cross country team competed at Kiwanis Park in Tempe at the Canyon Athletic Association (CAA) Cross Country State Championships on a brutal 1.5-mile course. There were nearly 150 runners entered in the junior high girls race.
Eighth-grader Justine Cooper finished second in the state with a time of 9:51.1. She was 1.1 seconds behind the first-place finisher and less than half a second in front of the third-place finisher.
“It was an incredible race and an awesome display of strength, endurance and determination, and a great, old-school will to win,” said coach Simon Smith. “She represented our school and the Community with a true, undeniable show of strength. She had trained hard to do so.”
Earlier in her running career, as a sixth-grader, Cooper finished sixth at the 2012 CAA state meet.
Cooper ran a great tactical race, surviving an extremely fast start, quickly settling in at third place in the first 300 yards and then attacking an early steep hill-climb with the front-runners. She ran near the front until the last half-mile, where she showed strength and showed what a good runner does. She moved into first place, passing two runners with bold, aggressive moves, including a runner from Basis Phoenix who had beaten Cooper in past races and who had taken many first places during the regular season. Cooper went right by her before a sharp right turn leading into the final quarter-mile and to the finish line. She was in first place at that point. “This was a brave, purposeful and decisive move that deserves respect,” Smith said.
Ki-ana Loring, in seventh grade, also finished in the top 20. At one point, at about the first half-mile, Loring was in sixth place in the lead group with Cooper. Loring finished the race with a time of 11:00.2. She had a tremendous season, winning a number of medals and placing high in many races in her first season as a Lady Eagles cross-country runner.
Also running in the state championship, after completing nearly 14 weeks of training and racing this season, were Gracelynn Lewis (grade 8), Jolee Miguel (grade 7) and Sierra Manuel (grade 6). The girls’ team score was 127 points. Out of 28 schools represented, the Salt River Junior High girls team finished seventh.
“It’s been going pretty well. I have improved in my time and am getting a lot faster in the mile,” said Lewis days before the state meet. “A little weightlifting and sprinting have helped me a lot in getting faster.”
John Valencia (grade 7) ran a season of continuous improvement and personal records. Valencia competed in every meet this season, the only runner to do so. He always looked forward to and enjoyed the tough practices. “He was an Iron Man,” said Smith.
“Cross country is really great and it’s fun,” said Valencia. “I have improved by five minutes with the help of my coaches and them teaching me about protein I needed in my diet, as well as doing extra laps. So far I have lost over 9 pounds.”
Valencia set a personal record of 12:35 in a mile and a half. “I am pretty sure I will beat it again. I have also been doing leg-muscle activities such as squats and also upper-body exercises,” said Valencia.
The race course for the junior-high runners was 1.5 miles long and consisted of short but steep grassy hill-climbs, long fast stretches of sidewalk and canal, and many turns, challenging inclines and fast declines. “The weather was nice, sunny and warm, but our runners seem to thrive in high temperatures and tough conditions. They have great attitudes and welcome heat, hills, rocks, any kind of tough conditions,” said Smith.
“I’m really proud of these kids. Who else gets up extra early on the weekend to be at an early race almost every weekend?” said Smith. After every practice, Smith, along with Kino Reed, who is the second coach of the team, go over being O’odham and Piipaash with the team and emphasize how they are representing their Community and people.
“We always remind them to remember who they are representing when they are at the meets,” said Smith.