Championship strides – Trio of LDS runners prove integral in Central Valley state title

“Like the marathon, life can sometimes be difficult, challenging and present obstacles, however if you believe in your dreams and never give up, things will turn out for the best.”

– Meb Keflezighi, U.S. Olympic marathoner

“Victories don’t come at a drive-thru. It takes a lot of work.”

– Kieran Mahoney, Central Valley High School cross country coach

You can usually spot them jogging diligently in their navy blue sweatshirts with the “CV” logo – even when temperatures plummet and layers of ice blanket asphalt roads throughout Spokane Valley.

Twice a day, they train, putting in the miles when other teams are lounging at home or organizing their practice schedules for a warmer day. Back in November – on a pedestrian, overcast afternoon in the Tri-Cities – the unwavering devotion paid off for the Central Valley High School boys cross country team as they left Pasco with the first state title in the history of the program.

A triumvirate of LDS runners – Corey Hunter and Spencer Jensen from the Spokane Valley Stake and Briton Demars of the Spokane East Stake – were among Central Valley’s top seven who outdueled traditional powerhouses like Eisenhower and Gig Harbor to capture the 4A Washington crown.

A trio of LDS runners were part of a cross country state championship for Central Valley High School in November (in navy blue from left to right: Briton Demars, Corey Hunter and Spencer Jensen).
Photo by John Hunter.

For Demars, a sophomore who made the trip to state as an alternate last season, the victory bordered on the surreal. When school started in the fall, he had tucked a 3 x 5 card in his binder that read simply, “4A Washington State Champions.”

“I almost didn’t believe that I had finally achieved something that had seemed so far out of reach until then,” Demars said. “The one goal that I had in sight the entire season was now accomplished. We earned the state title, and no one can ever take that away from us.”

Hunter, a junior, said there was talk early in the season of the Bears winning it all in Pasco, even though the team was ranked behind Eisenhower, Gig Harbor and Mead in the pre-season coaches survey.

“We knew we had the talent and potential to have a good season, maybe finishing in a state championship,” Hunter said. “But we also knew that we would need to continue to work hard and remain dedicated to reach our goals.”

Central Valley defeated Eisenhower of Yakima to win its first state cross country title in school history. The championship squad included only one senior, Logan Giese (center). Demars, Hunter, Jensen, Austin Seely, Colton Pegram and Matt Hommel comprised the rest of the top seven.
Photo by John Hunter.

In addition to being pillars on the varsity squad, Hunter, Jensen and Demars each share something else in common – they all make it a point to stow away their running shoes on Sunday.

“It’s a win-win situation for us,” Hunter said. “We keep the Sabbath day holy and get to sleep in.”

Kieran Mahoney, CV head cross country coach, said the three Mormon runners established themselves throughout the season “as examples, not only in practice and races, but in how they carried themselves.” Approximately one-third of the 81 runners on the CV team are LDS.

“These are kids with a very strong faith,” Mahoney said. “When things would get rocky during the season, you knew that they would trust in their faith, learn from the challenge and grow stronger.”

Hunter said his knowledge of the gospel – and adhering to its accompanying principles – provides helpful balance in all aspects of his life.

Junior Corey Hunter placed 25th out of 151 runners at the state 4A meet in Pasco with a time of 16:01.4 on the 5K (3.1-mile) course.
Photo by Sheryl Demars.

“I think being a member of the Church helps me keep a healthy perspective,” he said. “By teaching me an eternal perspective, the Church helps me view and overcome daily problems in both school and running.”

The Bears finished a surprising fifth at state last season, their best effort since a fourth-place trophy in 2007. The team competes in the Greater Spokane League, considered one of the premier high school cross country conferences in the nation. From 1988 to 2011, a squad from the GSL won every single big school Washington state cross country crown.

“As runners in the GSL, we always aim for the top,” Demars said. “If you want to be competitive, you have to be consistent in your training. Cross country goes to winter training, winter training goes to track and track goes to summer training. Each season builds on the last, improving both the individual and the team. We had guys on the team both this year and last that were willing to put in the effort to become something incredible.”

Jensen, a sophomore, said the possibility of winning the first state title in Central Valley history became a matter of the team realizing its potential.

“Coach Mahoney told us, is that it will be completely up to us, as a team, whether or not we compete at the state level,” Jensen said. “I remember looking at what we accomplished that previous season and thinking to myself that a state title is 100 percent achievable.”

Sophomore Spencer Jensen placed 22nd out of 151 runners at the state meet in a time of 15:54.7.
Photo by Sheryl Demars.

Over the years, LDS runners have risen to the top in state competition with the roll call of champions including such names as Isaac Hawkins, Andrea Nelson, Ben Johnston and Adam Thorne. Next year, Hunter, Demars and Jensen will return as the likely favorites to stand atop the podium in Pasco once again.

“Because we won, we made a name for ourselves that we have to defend,” Demars said. “We have to keep working and improving. Nothing is free in the GSL. Everything is earned, and this next season, it’s going to be like we’re starting just like this season – nowhere to go but up. With running, there are no boundaries as long as you are willing to do what it takes to succeed.”

Beyond their achievements in running, the LDS trio also excels in the classroom where each has earned honor roll status. Early morning seminary is also part of the schedule – but before that, there is the first training run of the day.

“Seminary is my favorite way to start the day,” Hunter said. “I enjoy the walk out to the seminary building, do my best to listen to the inspired words of my fellow students and teachers, and then start the school day full of good thoughts and in a good mood.”

Sophomore Briton Demars placed 34th out of 151 runners at state in a time of 16:13.8.
Photo by Sheryl Demars.

Demars says seminary, like running, sets an uplifting tone for the day.

“Through a typical school day, it’s easy to be caught up in all of the things we have to do,” he said. “Everything gets so busy that sometimes I lose sight of what actually matters. When I walk into seminary, the spirit there smoothes all of those ruffles out and I remember the most important things I need to do during my day – to be a friend to those in need, be an example, and keep my standards. I am so grateful to have seminary every day and partake of the soothing influence of the Spirit.”

Jensen said he draws consistently on the influence of the Spirit, whether he’s in seminary class or offering a prayer before a race.

“I know that having the Holy Ghost as a constant companion helps me to know all truth, whether it be in school or a guide in my thinking about what I need to say to my brothers during practice,” he said.

While cross country runners may not receive the notoriety of their peers in sports like basketball or football, Mahoney said the most important payoff is less about cheering fans than about striving to be your best.

“For a runner, the motivation comes from that pursuit of excellence,” he said. “It’s about setting individual goals and team goals. As in life, anything worthwhile is not going to be given to you. Our runners know if they want to be successful, they can’t do what the crowd does.”

The state 4A meet in Pasco took place Nov. 3 and included 151 of the top cross country runners in Washington.
Photo by John Hunter.

Jensen said the lack of publicity toward cross country initially struck him as unfair, but that outlook soon changed.

“You would be surprised how many people care,” he said. “They may not come and watch our meets, but they wish us luck, and that’s all the support we need to do our job. Our school was amazing to us after we returned home with a state title.”

Demars said that while most people “don’t see the sacrifices we make and the training we do to achieve victory,” the post-state assembly in the school commons was a memorable conclusion to an uncommon season.

“The real reward was making Central Valley proud,” he said. “It was cool to hear the whole school as they cheered for cross country – it’s not something you hear every day.”

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