The mud-caked winners of Saturday's state championship cross-country races get their names etched in the record books and will forevermore appear on the roll call of Alaska high school champions. History may make little note of those who finished second, but you can't tell the story of what happened on the slippery, sloppy Bartlett High trails without paying attention to them.
In only one of the four races did the winner command all of the spotlight -- Thorne Bay freshman Taylee Nyquest, who blew away the field in the Class 1-2-3A girls race. She won the 5-kilometer race by 33 seconds, by far the most dominating victory of the day.
In the other three races, second place was a big deal, even a very big deal.
The Class 4A boys race yielded a historic 1-2 finish. The Class 1-2-3A boys race served up a dramatic 1-2 finish. And the Class 4A girls race produced an ebullient runner-up who, trite as it may sound, embodied sportsmanship and team spirit.
Team titles went to the usual suspects in all but one instance.
Grace Christian scored a sweep of the Class 1-2-3A team titles for the fifth year in a row, with the boys winning their seventh straight championship. The Wasilla girls extended their Class 4A streak to three by beating West by nine points. But a new Class 4A boys champion emerged -- West Valley, which claimed its first team title since 1987 to end Service's three-year reign.
All of this happened on a schizophrenic day that began with heavy snowfall that helped turn the trail to mud. But by the time racing began, the sun was out and anyone who dressed for winter was seriously overheated.
Class 4A boys
Kodiak teammates Levi Thomet and Cole Christiansen placed first and second, respectively, to mark the first time since 1978 that boys from the same school finished 1-2. Thomet, a sophomore, edged Christiansen, a senior, by seven seconds, finishing in 16 minutes, 11 seconds.
Coach Marcus Dunbar planted the idea of a 1-2 finish in the days leading up to the race, partly because he appreciates the state's running history and partly because he knew only one of his runners could be the state champion.
"They have enough stress just racing each other," Dunbar said. "I wanted them to know that going 1-2 was really special, because I knew only one of them could win."
By scouring past results and talking to long-time followers of the sport, Dunbar determined that the only other time a Class 4A school went 1-2 in the boys race was 34 years ago when Dimond's Greg Cress and Mark Clark pulled off the feat.
Thomet and Christiansen have been registering 1-2 finishes for Kodiak all season, with Thomet prevailing most of the time. Although Thomet was in control at the end, the pair shared and traded the lead throughout the race.
"I was, like, panicking. I didn't want him to get away from me," Thomet said of his teammate. "I didn't know if he was going to kick it in at the end or not."
With Julian McCarthy placing seventh, the Bears were part of a tight race for the team championship. Just 10 points separated the top three teams, with the state title going to West Valley, which put five runners in the top 18 to score 49 points.
Service, which also had five in the top 20, was second with 54 points. Gilly Szweda-Mittelstadt led the Cougars and topped all Cook Inlet Conference runners with a fifth-place finish, just one second out of fourth place. Kodiak took home the third place with 59 points.
Class 4A girls
As they walked through the chute after crossing the finish line, runnerup Audrey Michaelson of Colony lent a helping hand to the wobbly winner, Allie Ostrander of Kenai.
Ostrander, the tiny sophomore who has dominated for most of her two high school seasons, captured her first state title in 18:46, six seconds ahead of Michaelson. Ostrander had been the overwhelming favorite to win as a freshman, but dehydration and hypothermia derailed her about a kilometer from the finish line and she went from first place to a distance last place, and then into an ambulance.
This time, Ostrander looked pale and weak after her victory. She was carried out of the finish area by her dad and spent a long time inside a tent set up for medics, although no ambulance was needed this time.
Michaelson, meanwhile, looked and sounded like a champ. She shared laughs and long hugs with teammates and opponents, and then fought back tears as she talked about her final high school race.
"I have such mixed emotions right now," she said. "These four years have been the best of my life. I love this team. I love everyone so much. Even my opponents -- they make me so much better.
"I can't believe it's over. I'm in disbelief right now.
"I'm so proud to wear this jersey and be on this team."
The narrow margin separating Michaelson from Ostrander, who beat Michaelson by 55 seconds in the Region III championship last weekend, was another source of disbelief for Michaelson. She said she saw Ostrander once on a turn but not again until the race left the woods for the final 500 meters around an open field.
"The small gap caught me by surprise," she said. "I feel like I gave it everything I had. When I saw her, I was so surprised. I tried to push it harder.
"She ran her heart out too."
Class 1-2-3A boys
In a stirring duel that unfolded in front of an appreciative finish-line crowd, Glennallen's Arlen Mossgrove beat defending champion Miles Knotek of Seward in a race so close the two runners knocked shoulders on the final corner.
Knotek led for much of the final 500 meters, but every time it looked like he was poised to pull away, Mossgrove managed to catch up.
Mossgrove made the winning move on a corner about 100 meters from the finish. It appeared he cut off Knotek on his way to a time of 16:55, one second ahead of Knotek.
"It was just guts and determination. I wanted it so bad," Mossgrove said. "I didn't even think about cutting him off, I was just trying to get the shortest route possible."
Mossgrove and Knotek are both seniors, and Knotek has had the advantage during their careers. Conditions suited Knotek, whose prowess on difficult trails has earned him two Mount Marathon junior championships and who was undeterred by the mud.
"Miles kind of surged in the muddier spots," said Mossgrove, who said he nearly gave up on catching Knotek with about 400 meters to go.
At last week's Region III championships, Knotek beat Mossgrove by five seconds, their closest race until Saturday.
"I've been behind him for a long time until last week," Mossgrove said. "That gave me confidence."
Class 1-2-3A girls
Taylee Nyquest's family moved from Idaho to Thorne Bay five years ago. Her dad is the harbormaster for the Prince of Wales Island town of about 400, and her mom is a school administrator and Nyquest's coach.
Nyquest is a 14-year-old freshman with natural talent, something that becomes evident when you hear her story.
"I ran in the fifth and sixth grade but couldn't in the seventh and eighth grade because I was growing so rapidly my doctor said I should lay off running for awhile," she said.
Nyquest grew about six inches after sixth grade, mom Sheila said, but she looks comfortable in her 5-foot-8 frame. She stayed fit during the two years she didn't run by playing volleyball and then returned to running this summer, logging 120 miles of training -- about 10 miles a week, which is pretty low by most standards.
Running in spikes for the first time, Nyquest led the entire way and steadily pulled farther and farther ahead of her pursuers to finish in 19:33.
With Nyquest in total control, the real race was for second place. Rosa Schmidt of Nome claimed runner-up honors by edging Grace Christian's Morgan Lash, with both runners clocking 20:06. Two seconds later came the defending champion, Grace's Elle Arnold.
Nyquest said she didn't think twice about charging to an early lead.
"In all of my previous races I started out in front and I ended up in front and I was in the middle in front," she said. "I knew this was my race."
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.Photos: State cross country championships
By BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News