It’s no secret the Highland High School cross country program had to reload heading into the 2020 season.
The Hawks graduated several star runners on both teams, including star Leo Daschbach for the boys and Caroline McLeskey for the girls. Both runners played vital roles last season in helping Highland place No. 1 overall for the boys and No. 2 for the girls in the 2019 cross country finals.
Heading into 2020, coach Monty Montgomery felt he had been able to reload his program with capable runners to once again compete for the state title. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“What we all went through, it says a lot about every kid out here,” Highland coach Monty Montgomery said. “I’m just thankful we had a season. I told the kids all year we just had to adapt and overcome.”
The pause on all sports activities in the summer, when the virus first raged on in Arizona, resulted in virtual meetings and Highland runners training on their own. Some met with other teammates at local parks while others ran around their neighborhoods.
Instead of a team effort to train for the season like in years past, it widely fell on each individual to hold themselves accountable. And despite the difficulty and nervousness presented on a daily basis, it became clear Highland’s group of runners on both the girls’ and boys’ teams took their offseason seriously despite a seemingly volatile situation around them.
“When we were locked down they were over here running on their own,” Montgomery said. “I couldn’t be with them. That tells you a lot about their character and their discipline.”
Highland’s girls placed second overall while the boys placed third at the 2020 Arizona Interscholastic Association cross country championships. The event, held at Crossroads Park in Gilbert on Thursday, Nov. 12, featured a 3.1-mile course through the park’s hills.
The girls were the first to race in the early morning session. Kayla Case, a sophomore at Highland, placed third overall with a time of 18 minutes, 1.9 seconds. She was the first Highland runner to cross and was followed by sophomore Emma Baugh a short time later. Marina Deer, Sophie Mann and Kathryn Sewell also had strong runs for the Hawks, which put them just three points behind state-champion Desert Vista.
The boys took to the starting line shortly after the conclusion of the first event. Led by senior Elijah Poelman, the boys placed 18 points behind champion Brophy and eight behind runner-up Desert Vista. Senior Brandon Ericson, freshman Crewe Resendez, junior Wyatt Williams and senior Jagger Zlotoff also scored key points for the Hawks.
“I’m very proud of both teams,” Montgomery said. “We ran as well as we could have today. The times were fast, and this isn’t usually a very fast course. (Desert Vista) and Brophy, we knew they would bring it.”
Several other Gilbert programs also competed for a shot at the state title. In Division I girls, Perry finished just behind Highland in third place. Perry’s boys placed 11th.
On Friday, Nov. 13, the Division II and IV races took place at Crossroads Park. Campo Verde’s girls, a traditionally strong program, placed sixth overall. The boys placed third in Division II.
Gilbert High School’s cross country program captured the boys Division II state title after a strong performance by junior Terrance Keys, who placed third. Junior Jefferson Sees, junior Oscar Gregorio and sophomore Leo Freestone also contributed to the Tigers’ win.
The state championship by Gilbert put an end to Flagstaff’s reign as the top program in Division II.
Arete Prep in Gilbert placed seventh overall in the boys Division IV race.
The end of the pandemic-shortened cross country season was a welcoming sight to Montgomery. At various times, he had runners in quarantine after they were considered a potential close contact to a positive case at the school.
“On the boys, we lost our No. 7 to contact tracing, which hurt,” Montgomery said. “We were also missing our No. 5 but that’s OK. That’s the way it goes. Everybody had to deal with that.”
Many other programs shared the same sentiment as Montgomery. A sense of relief came over the park as each runner crossed the finish line.
At any moment, the programs could have been shut down and their season essentially canceled. But they all managed to overcome perhaps the greatest adversity they have ever faced in competing.