Nate Gartrell, EDN

South Eugene High School ended the misery two weeks ago when their cross country team blew past the competition and won the OSAA 6A State Championship titles for both the boys and girls teams. The victories ended a title-less streak that spanned a decade for the Axemen girls, and 20 years for the boys.

South Eugene runners Jack Wilson, left, Brian Eimstad, middle, and Joe Holvey, right,celebrate after completing their run. Photo courtesy of Jeff Hess

For the girls, the victory represented a vindication of sorts, after some tough losses in past years. The Axemen girls finished fourth in 2008, third in 2009, and were runners-up last year.

“We’ve been building up to this for a long time,” senior Paige Kouba, a co-captain of the girls team, said. “Every year we’ve gotten better, and we were ready to do something special. It’s wonderful to be where we are now.”

The boys’ team, meanwhile, is a senior-heavy bunch with some good junior runners in place, according to senior co-captain Brian Eimstad. Going into the tournament, Eimstad said his team expected to win, despite the fact that the Axemen hadn’t done so since 1981.

“We were, and still are, really happy that we managed to pull it off,” Eimstad explained. “Over the past couple seasons, our previous captains always talked about the possibility of winning state, even in years when it’s completely not possible.”

Both Kouba and Eimstad spoke about the closeness of the team, which celebrated together by going out for desserts after their win. In separate interviews, each took time to congratulate the other gender’s squad. They also both lavished praise onto their coach, Jeff Hess, who was placed in charge of South Eugene’s boys and girls cross country teams in 2003. Hess worked as an assistant coach to the Axemen during the girls’ 2001 championship title, and said he views his team’s victory in the context of South Eugene High’s history.

“The runners on this year’s team understand this as becoming part of the legacy of this program,” Hess claimed. “It’s not a singular accomplishment on their part, but it’s part of the long chain of great accomplishments.”

Hess has also been responsible for many other links in that chain throughout his life. As a graduate of South Eugene, Hess still holds a high school national record he set in 1979 for the steeplechase. He was also a four-time Oregon high school state champion during those years. Additionally, he’s coached Oregon high school cross country teams since 1990, starting with Glendale High before coming to South Eugene.

The Axemen cross country squad posing with their newly-won trophies, following the Nov. 5 tournament. Photo courtesy of Jeff Hess

Hess stated that, though his coaching style didn’t change drastically, he did have his team run the actual course more than he has in past years.That was easy, since the tournament was held on the Lane Community College campus (a five minute drive from South Eugene High).

“We ran three workouts out there (LCC), one a week, in the three weeks leading up to state,” Hess said. “I think that was helpful for sure.”

With respect to both Axemen teams’ chances of earning a second consecutive title next year, the boys and girls are in different places age-wise. The girls, with only two seniors, will have fewer holes to fill in the fall of 2012.

“We’ll have five of our top seven returning, and they’ll all be stronger next year,” Kouban said. “We had some phenomenal performances from our two freshmen, Sara Tsai and Phacelia Cramer, who are both just wonderfully talented.”

Meanwhile, with three of its four top 12 finishers this year graduating, the boys may have a tough time matching their performance in 2012. But Eimstad is confident in next year’s Axemen.

“I think they could do pretty well next year,” Eimstad said. “We have a lot of strong runners, juniors and sophomores, at the very top of JV.”

Regardless, these Axemen made big strides during a season that many will remember for years to come.