Four years ago, a group of freshmen joined the Desert Vista High School cross-country team and since then have turned the program into one of the best of its kind in Arizona.
Last weekend, they proved just that by placing eighth at the Nike Cross National Championship in Portland, Oregon, as the first-ever boys team from Arizona to compete in the event.
The core group of seniors Reece Donihi, Habtamu Cheney, Bryce Schmisseur, Aksel Laudon and Nick Thatcher formed the key cogs in the Desert Vista cross-country machine that captured four straight state championships.
Although they accomplished a lot inside the state of Arizona, since that first year the runners had always dreamed of doing something bigger. That was when they first set a goal to compete at NXN.
“Freshman year, coach (Hanson) told us that this was the team that was going to make Desert Vista history and we’ve been working towards that goal ever since,” Habtamu said.
They put in the countless hours of hard work and effort to accomplish what they did. Head Coach Chris Hanson, who has been with the program since its inception in 1996, said the group didn’t stick out just because of their talent.
“I knew I had a special group of boys,” Hanson said. “Not just because they were fast – and that certainly doesn’t hurt – but they were willing to put in the extra work and extra time. And they wanted to one day experience NXN and that was their goal.”
The dream of competing in Portland almost alluded them.
In order to qualify for the national championship, the Thunder had to place in the top two teams at the Southwest Regional race in Casa Grande. But the team turned in a performance that wasn’t up to the standards that it had consistently met all season long and finished fourth.
With the fate of their career-long dream out of their hands, the boys could only get back to work and wait.
Of the 22 teams that qualify for the national championship, four teams earn at-large bids.
The Thunder team’s hopes were still alive, but were slimmer than before. The runners never gave up and Hanson said his squad turned in the best week of practice that they had all year.
Then the call came with their invitation to compete in Portland.
“I was just going out of my mind because we knew we deserved it,” Nick Thatcher said. “From an outside point of view, from someone who’s not on the team, you could look at that (performance at regionals) and be like okay they don’t deserve to go. But, as a team, we knew we deserved to go.”
Competing in the Southwest Region, one of the toughest regions in the country, may have helped their case on getting a bid to the race. But the runners still needed to prove to themselves that they belonged.
With 199 runners and 22 teams, Desert Vista placed all seven runners between 57th and 134th and turned in a team score of 227 points – six points from the seventh-place team and 138 points from the first-place team.
While the first-place overall finisher, Aidan Troutner from Timpview High School in Provo, Utah, clocked a 15:03 finish, senior Reece Donihi was the first Desert Vista runner across the line with a 16:00 time.
Sophomore Sammy Van Alstine was next with a 16:07, followed by Cheney in fifth with a 16:12 and Bryce Schmisseur with a 16:23. Aksel Laudon, Nick Thatcher and Lee Nasewytewa all finished within three seconds of each to round out the pack at 16:37, 16:39 and 16:40.
Given they were the final team to earn a bid, some observers figured the Thunder would finish near the bottom of the pack.
The team’s eighth-place finish not only proved doubters wrong, but also proved to the runners themselves that they belonged. Most importantly, they accomplished a goal that they set long ago.
“To accomplish it and to live it this past weekend was pretty surreal.” Aksel Laudon said. “I think we will definitely look back on it for the remainder of our lives because we are really proud of our accomplishments and we’ve definitely come a long way.”
Through the years, they bonded as teammates, and as best friends, forming a special bond that Hanson said is unique to cross country. While the goal was accomplished by this special group of runners, it didn’t come easy. They had to put in a lot of work and improve each and every day they could.
“Talent is never enough, it’s so much more than that, and the hard work and commitment and sacrifice, all the things, the clichés that people say, they are true and you really don’t know it till you experience it,” Hanson said. “We certainly knew this was a special group and were hoping it won’t be the last time that were given an opportunity to race there and hope this is just the beginning.”
While Hanson will lose his five core seniors to graduation, Nasewytewa and Van Alstine are coming back next year.
Both played a large role in helping the Thunder to capture the sectional championship this year. Van Alstine has showed promise throughout the year as a young runner on the rise. But they both know that in order to repeat what they accomplished this year, they will need to put in a lot of work.
And that’s exactly what they plan to do.