They have some big cross country shoes to fill at Tahoma High this fall.
The shoes that left behind by now-graduated state-caliber runner Jono Lafler, who has gone on to Washington State University.
Talented as they are, Kelton Sears and Casey Campbell both know that neither one can fill those shoes by himself.
But together, they could fill them quite nicely. In fact, that’s precisely the plan as the Bears head into South Puget Sound League North Division season, which began solidly enough Wednesday afternoon.
In a double-dual meet against Kent-Meridian and Kentwood on K-M’s grueling 3.1-mile home course, Sears won with a time of 16:44, and Campbell was second in 16:52. The defending division champion Tahoma took both meets, 21-36 against the Conquerors and 17-40 against the Royals.
That came just four days after they crossed the line within four seconds of each other (Campbell sixth place overall, Sears seventh) in helping the Bears finish second at last Saturday’s Fort Steilacoom Invitational.
“With Jono gone, there’s definitely a different dynamic,” Sears said. “When we had Jono, if one of (the other Bears) messed up, he could pick up some of the slack. We have to run as a pack. And I think we’re doing that better this year than we have in the past.”
Added Campbell, “Our strength this year is that we have more than one runner out there leading us.”
Now, they have two — not to mention a solid group behind them.
But whether it’s Sears or Campbell in the lead can change from race to race. That’s fine with both of them, as they are thriving on the daily competition during practice.
“I really enjoy racing him,” Campbell said. “It’s (a matter of) who’s feeling better every day. It makes us push each other hard. We know we’re close.”
“Sometimes, we’ll do mile repeats in practice, and he’ll finish a second behind me or a second in front of me,” Sears said.
The back-and-forth business was taking root even last year.
At the SPSL sub-district meet, in which Lafler took second place behind Puyallup’s Rob Webster Jr., Sears came across the line third, and Campbell was fifth. They were 20 seconds apart.
The following weekend at West Central District, where Lafler ran second overall to Gig Harbor’s Miles Unterreiner, Campbell was the second Bear to finish the race, taking ninth overall, with Sears a couple seconds farther back in 11th.
Then at state, Tahoma snagged the third-place trophy, with plenty of help from Sears (second for the Bears, 25th overall) and Campbell (third for the Bears, 40th overall, 14 seconds in back of Sears).
“Last year, Kelton usually beat me. I was still kind of new to this sport,” Campbell said, adding that moving up closer to Sears “just kind of happened over the summer and during track. I wasn’t really sure coming into the season what was going to happen. I really like having someone to push me.”
Sears and Campbell could give the Bears a 1-2 punch similar to what they had a few years ago with Allen Wood and Curtis Suver, both of whom went on to college running success. Matter of fact, the closeness between those two former Tahoma teammates came up during a cross country camp this summer in Hawaii which the Bears attended.
“When they talked about that, I looked at Casey and laughed,” Sears said. “I hope there’ll be an Allen and Curtis dynamic (with us).”
Tahoma coach Gary Conner, starting his 16th season at the helm, likes what he has seen from both of his front runners.
“Kelton has learned to run this year. The only thing with him is he has to finish that last 300 meters,” Conner said. “And if Casey can just continue to run with confidence, he has a great kick.”
SPSL NORTH CROSS COUNTRY: AT A GLANCE
• FAVORITES (boys): Tahoma, Auburn Riverside.
• CONTENDERS/SLEEPERS (boys): The favorites appear to be well out in front.
• FAVORITE (girls): Tahoma.
• WATCH OUT FOR (girls): Auburn Riverside, Jefferson.
• OUTLOOK (boys): It’s not every year that a league has two division champions in it. But that’s the case with the North boys this fall. Tahoma is coming off an undefeated campaign that won the division title in 2007, and Auburn Riverside put together its own unbeaten season to win the SPSL 3A dual-meet championship last fall before moving back up to 4A and rejoining the North. Only one of them has a chance for perfecto this year, and it just might come down to the Oct. 15 regular-season finale on Tahoma’s home course at Lake Wilderness Park.
• OUTLOOK (girls): Tahoma has lost just one meet — to Jefferson, back in 2006 — since joining the SPSL in 1997. The Bears aren’t likely to lose any this year, either. With five of its seven state runners back from last year, including the top group of junior Hannah Mittelstaedt, senior Molli Bahlenhorst, and sophomore Lauren Clawson, Tahoma looks solid enough to go well beyond another division title. This team could find itself well up the state meet ladder — not necessarily on the top rung, but high enough to bring home a nice piece of hardware for the display case. Auburn Riverside, led by senior Kalee Cipra, might not have been on anyone’s preseason radar, but the Ravens certainly will be now after beating Jefferson in the regular-season opener on Wednesday, 25-31. Individually, the phrase “wide-open” comes to mind. Cipra, TJ senior Vanessa Bennum, or anyone from Tahoma’s trio of Bahlenhorst, Mittelstaedt and Clawson all are capable of winning on any particular race day.
• CIRCLE THE CALENDAR: Oct. 4 — Sunfair. The Yakima meet often attracts the best of the best — from in state and elsewhere. Oct. 8 — Kentlake and Tahoma at Jefferson. For the past few seasons, TJ-Tahoma is the girls meet that everyone anticipates. Oct. 15 — Auburn and Auburn Riverside at Tahoma. If the Bears and Ravens are still unbeaten on the boys side, this regular-season finale will decide the title. Nov. 1 — West Central District at American Lake Golf Course (Tacoma). The last step to state. Nov. 8 — State meet at Sun Willows Golf Course, Pasco. Apple Cup Saturday? Final Four semifinal Saturday? Kentucky Derby Saturday? Forget it. If you’re a cross country fan, this is the best Saturday of the year.
— Mark Moschetti/For the Reporter