Desert Vista Cross Country

Reece Donihi (#1924) finished 27th overall at the regional qualifier in Casa Grande as the Desert Vista Cross Country team finished 4th and earned an "at-large" bid into the Nike Cross Country National Meet. 

Photo by Mark Schmisseur

For the first time in the history of the event, a boy’s cross country team from Arizona will have the opportunity to compete for a national championship at the Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, OR on December 2.

The journey for the Desert Vista Thunder started at the beginning of the season. Competing against some of the top teams in the west, they took second at the 37th Annual Woodbridge Cross Country meet in Norco, CA. Then, they captured a first place finish at the Desert Twilight Invitational in Casa Grande. They quickly built a reputation for themselves by holding their own against premier competition.

On the Arizona scene, the Thunder went on to win the Tempe City Champions. Then, while most of their starters rested in preparation for the state meet, super sophomore Sammy Van Alstine clocked a 15:58 to lead the charge for another Thunder sectional championship.

Just a week later, the Thunder captured their fourth straight Arizona state championship, with six of their seven runners finishing in the top 25. Senior Habtamu Cheney was the first Desert Vista runner across the line, clocking a 15:56 for a second-place finish.

While the accomplishment of a fourth straight state title was fulfilling, the Thunder had their eyes set on a much larger prize. The chance to compete for a national championship, something no Arizona boys cross country team had ever done.

It was a goal that was formed in their freshman year. Head Coach Chris Hanson knew the current seniors were a special class and they built on a bond that is unique to the sport of cross country. But, in order to accomplish that goal, six seniors Van Alstine had to finish in the top two teams at the NXR Southwest Regional Championships in Casa Grande on November 18.

When that day came, the Thunder didn’t turn in their best performance. They finished 4th with a score of 235, 32 points behind the 3rd place team and 86 behind the 2nd place team.

Senior Reece Donihi was the first Thunder runner across the line at 15:27 and Habtamu Cheney came across the line at 15:30. Bryce Schmisseur came in 59th with a clocking of 15:49 and Nick Thatcher finished with a time of 16:06. Aksel Laudon and sophomore Sammy Van Alstine finished in 103rd and 104th with the same exact time of 16:07. Dangelo Piasceki was the last Thunder runner across the line with a clocking of 16:21.

Because the Thunder didn’t finish in the top two teams, their chances of making the national championship were slim. Their only hope was to earn an “at-large” bid, something that was left up to a selection committee.  

“We knew we still had a chance so we tried to keep our heads up and be positive about it,” Hanson said. “But, it wasn’t easy.”

Knowing their chances were still alive, they went back to work. Instead of sulking in defeat, the Thunder used the performance as a learning experience and as motivation moving forward. After a week of training, which Hanson called the best week of training all season, it paid off.

The Desert Vista Thunder were awarded the fourth and final bid to the Nike Cross Nationals race this weekend and the boys, along with Coach Hanson, are looking forward to the challenge.

“All the work to get us where we are has already been done,” Reece Donihi said. “We know the success we are capable of. Therefore, all we need is a couple days of mental preparation and good rest.”

The team from Ahwatukee will be pitted against the top 22 teams in the nation, something that is unrivaled in high school sports and is unique to only cross country. One race to decide a national champion. It was something special that this group of seniors have wanted since they were freshman, and now they are finally here.

“We are beyond honored to have this unbelievable opportunity to represent all of Arizona,” Donihi said. “We have always known that we were destined for the national spotlight, but to see our names on the national headlines of high school cross country and finally receive this chance is beyond anything I could imagine. For us, this is our freshman dreams realized. We are determined to make our home state proud.”

Hanson said his squad is confident heading into the national championship race this weekend, where they will experience a once in a lifetime opportunity to compete against the best teams in the country.

“Knowing how we ran at regionals, not running our best per say, is also inspiring. We get an opportunity to learn from it and grow from it,” Hanson said. “Not everyone gets that, so were gonna take advantage of it. So, that’s how we trained and it showed and the bottom line is that these guys are going in hungrier than ever.”

The Thunder will fulfill their dreams on December 2 at Glendoveer Golf Course in Portland, OR at 10:05 am. The race will be streamed live at http://cdn.runnerspace.com/nxnlive.html.

Do you have a human-interest or feature story idea? Contact Sports Editor Greg Macafee at gmacafee@timespublications.com. or by phone at 585-610-2344. Follow Greg on Twitter @greg_macafee and the Sports Department at @TMG__sports

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