American Fork girls and boys cross-country teams dominate Grass Relays

Published: Saturday, Aug. 30 2014 8:00 p.m. MDT

American Fork's Katie Cornell, center, tries to catch her breath after completing her leg of the race as teammates tell her that their team broke the 1999 record in the American Fork Grass Relays at American Fork High School on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

AMERICAN FORK — It’s their home track, their home course, but for reasons no one could quite articulate, the American Fork girls cross-country team has always struggled in the relay race it hosts at the start of every prep season.

In fact, the girls have struggled so mightily that Cavemen head girls coach Bruno Hunziker and assistant Lindsey Dunkley told this year’s runners to consider the event training rather than stressing its competitive aspects.

The approach worked as the American Fork girls team not only won the varsity relay race, it shattered a 15-year-old record.

“In years past, this is always our most terrible race, for whatever reason,” Dunkley said after the five-person team covered 10 miles in 62:03, beating the old record set by Bingham in 1999 by 29 seconds. “Our history with this race is to barely finish eighth. We keep blowing up, so we tried to take the pressure off of them. I also think it helped them to open up last week (at the Highland Invitational).”

The American Fork Grass Relays are unique in format, and also in how coaches utilize the event to help their runners develop, grow and gauge their summer training. While normal cross-country races are three miles with all of the varsity runners competing at the same time, the relay is a 10-mile race made up of five two-mile legs.

“It’s just something fun and different,” said Bingham head coach Lisa Paxton, whose lead-off runner, Marlee Mitchell, earned the fastest individual split of the day for the girls with an 11:47. “This is not your typical cross-country race. … This is a fun race, they get to jump over barrels, and the varsity girls can actually cheer for each other.”

Hunter’s head coach Ed Morrell said it emphasizes the team concept, which is uniquely important to high school and college programs.

“Team titles are more important, to tell you the truth,” he said. “It gives all seven athletes (on a varsity team) the opportunity to contribute to the team’s scoring, as opposed to just the top one or two guys or girls. And this is just a nice break from the typical 5K events.”

The day starts with freshmen and sophomores running a typical three-mile cross-country race. That’s followed by juniors and seniors running a standard race. The culmination of the competition is the five-person relay, made up of the five fastest members of each program’s varsity squad. This year there were 26 boys teams and 25 girls teams competing in the day-long races.

The American Fork boys also won Saturday’s race, and they were just two seconds off the pace, despite having one runner struggling to come back from an injury. Led by Zac Jacklin, who had the fastest split of the day with a 9:57, the Cavemen boys team won with a time of 51:48. Defending 3A state champion Desert Hills was second with a time of 52:58.

American Fork head cross-country coach Timo Mostert said the unique race can do a number of things for a team.

“First, we have so many rookies who come with their teams, and this might be their first time ever running a cross-country race,” Mostert said. “So this gets them to start understanding how fun cross-country is.”

It also can help focus runners on what’s most important in high school competition.

“Cross-country, in any race, is a team race,” Mostert said. “So maybe just starting with the relay, it does give the varsity guys a little more focus on the idea that every single guy is important.” That was certainly the case for the American Fork girls as the possibility of breaking Bingham’s 15-year-old record became a reality as their third runner, Lexie Green, took off with a substantial lead over the pack.