For an 800-meter guy, David Graham transformed into a heck of a cross country runner.
The light came on for Graham late in his junior year when the Highland standout ran a personal best of 1 minute, 54.05 seconds in the 800 at the Meet of Champions in late May.
"Since I saw I could run that, I thought if I could do really well in cross country, it would carry over into the track season," Graham said. "I wanted to work harder."
So he did. Graham's work ethic, leadership and confidence transformed the Highland team from a perennial contender to Division I champion, the first state cross country title in school history, and those efforts are why Graham is the Tribune's Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year.
"After he ran that 1:54 last year, there seemed like there were some change in his mental toughness and he started believing in himself," said Highland coach Dave Montgomery. "As a team they started believing in themselves, and David added to that because he was running so well."
It's rare that one runner can transform the mental toughness of a team, but that is what Graham did for the Hawks this season. In 2010, the Hawks finished a distant 10th in the Division I state meet, with Graham's 39th place finish the best on the team. The top five runners from the 2010 state meet returned in 2011, with Graham, Logan Woolf, Peter Hanson, Alex Fabiano and Manuel Aguilar making up the core of the team.
With Graham leading the way, all of the Hawks rose to the occasion at the state meet. Graham had his best race of the year, placing third, and six of the Hawks' seven runners finished ahead of where Graham finished in 2010 (39th).
"When we started seeing we could compete, we came together and made a goal that we were going to do everything for each other," Graham said. "We said we were going to do it the whole time, but afterwards, when we did win, it was a big surprise."
The Hawks won by a whopping 37 points, which is a pretty large margin at the state meet. Graham, who was shooting for a top 10 finish, ran a strong tactical race, moving up through the pack after going out conservatively in the first mile, which turned out to be a winning formula for the Hawks.
"After we won the (Doug Conley Invitational), I told them that I thought we had a shot at this," Montgomery said. "But they were like, ‘We're going to win.' David was a big part of that because he's a great leader. His mental attitude is phenomenal. He had no doubts."
Graham is hoping that his strong cross country season carries over into track, where he has his eyes on setting a new state record in the 800 this spring. Desert Vista's John Kline holds the record at 1:51.3, but Graham wants to go faster.
"I want to run in the 1:49's," Graham said. "I want to be the best in the nation."
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Boys Cross Country All-Tribune First Team
Name Yr. School Comment
Dallin Gherkins Sr. Mountain View Made big jump this season; placed 9th in Div. I
David Graham Sr. Highland Best runner on state's best team
Carter Macey Jr. Desert Vista Started to tap vast potential with 7th-place finish in Div. I
Luke May Jr. Coronado Was 10th in loaded Div. III field
Jose Retana Sr. Skyline Closed career on high note with 8th place finish in Div. I
Eduardo Roa Sr. McClintock One of the state's best as Div. II champion
Jake Wynn Jr. Saguaro First in long line of Wynn's to win individual state title
Runner of the year: David Graham, Highland
Coach of the year: David Montgomery, Highland: It was a long time coming for the Hawks coach, who after 25 seasons as a coach was able to hoist a state championship trophy of his own. Montgomery's teams have always been solid, but this year the Hawks had the kind of toughness that it takes to survive a tough season and come out on top.
All-Tribune Second Team
Manuel Aguilar Sr. Highland Part of the Hawks' senior core; was 18th in Div. I
Ryan Dykstra Jr. Desert Vista Much was expected of Dykstra and he was solid; finishing 13th in Div. I
Ethan Homan Jr. Cactus Shadows Ran to a 4th-place finish in Div. II
Cooper Molumby Sr. Perry A nice surprise for the Pumas; had a 15th place finish in Div. I
Brandon Wheat Sr. Mountain View Finished season 10th in Div. I, right behind Gherkins
Jake Whitney Jr. Corona del Sol Mr. Consistency for the Aztecs was 16th in Div. I
Logan Woolf Jr. Highland His emergence behind Graham helped Hawks claim title
Apache Junction: Colton Cave, Sr.; Omar Ewert, So.; Brophy: Jack Rubenzer, Jr.; Brock Ghelfi, Sr.; Cactus Shadows: Keith Durkin, Fr.; Corona del Sol: Nate Rodriguez, Soph.; Desert Mountain: Matti Groll, Jr.; Desert Vista: Ryan Smith, Jr.; Gilbert Classical: Sawyer Kimball, So.; Hamilton: Marcus Wheeler, Fr.; Highland: Weston Jones, So.; Higley: Brennen Barfuss, So.; Horizon Honors: Galen Geislinger, Sr.; Marcos de Niza: Julio Felix, Sr.; Mesquite: Tyler Day, Fr.; Mountain View: R.J. Massey, Sr.; Perry: Patrick Hardwick, Sr.; Saguaro: Damian Mitchell, Sr.; Wil Gilbreath, Jr.; Tempe Prep: Caleb Peckham, Jr