A few years ago you wouldn’t be able to find any runners from Heppner competing in the cross country state championships. It wasn’t due to a lack of talent. It was simply because there was no cross country team to begin with.
That changed three years ago when Russ and Toni Nichols saw a hole that needed to be filled. The couple had been contemplating it for years. After finding time away from the many other obligations they had along with getting the OK from the administration, Heppner had its first ever boys and girls cross country team.
“Without having that program — and not just our own kids — but there were kids ahead of them that really wanted it and talked about it, so we thought about it for a while,” Toni Nichols said. “But Russ was really involved with baseball at the time, and we had a lot of things we already volunteered for and we were coaching track at that time.
“So, it took us a couple years of talking about it,” she added, “and talking with administration to get them on board. It’s just one those (things) where there was a need.”
Coaching cross country at the high school level would be a new endeavor for the already talented duo. Russ, an experienced runner himself, had been coaching a running club in town. Toni, aside from coaching track, traded in the soccer jersey she once sported for a clipboard instead and started coaching youth soccer in Heppner. Soon, their experience would come together to form what is now a 25-person cross country team.
“The more we heard of interest the more we wanted to just get the kids something else to do,” Toni Nichols said. “We weren’t totally sure what our own kids would decide, but it’s been really good for a lot of the kids. We’ve seen them grow so much in the last three years, giving some of those kids that didn’t have sports at all that didn’t quite fit into the football or fit into this, it’s been good for them.”
Now, in the program’s third season another Nichols is the star of the show. Hunter Nichols, a junior at Heppner High, qualified for state after finishing in the top-5 (17:01.3) at the district meet Friday. Hunter took the fifth-and-final individual qualifying spot, despite not running his best.
“It was a really loaded race,” he said. “I’ve never really competed with that fast of a group before, but we’ve always ran together. I didn’t have the best race of my life, but I throw everything out there.”
Hunter was well prepared, clocking miles throughout the week of practice leading up to the district meet. But he felt under the weather the day of the race, something he says is no excuse. He knew the Union boys he’d be up against we’re going to push the pace and provide tough competition, something he never expected from the sport.
“I didn’t think it was as competitive as it is,” he said when asked what he thought of the sport before he joined.
Nichols, like his parents, grew up in an athletic family. He tried multiple sports and often with his parents as coaches.
At the start of his freshman year, he played on the football team and competed in cross country’s inaugural season. He admitted that he wasn’t much of a football player, although Heppner did win its second state title in program history that year. He did, however, find some success on various cross country courses throughout eastern Oregon.
In 2015, Hunter ran sub-18 minutes twice. In 2016, he only clocked 18 minutes or more twice and finished in the top five all but two races. This year, he set a new personal record at 16:25.8 and finished in the top five all but one race.
“He’s just been running real well,” Russ said. “He’s just really tough and determined and ... he’s just gotten a lot tougher.”
Hunter attributes his success to what he calls the “usual stuff.”
“Just hard work and dedication,” he says.
It also doesn’t hurt that his parents are there to give him an extra push, when needed. It’s something he is used to, and it’s something that motivates him.
“It gets kind of hard sometimes not that I need the attention, but I try to make them feel good — making them feel like they’re doing the right thing,” he said. “I’ve never really experience anything other than my parents coaching.”
For his parents, coaching in a small town means coaching the same kids in various sports. Toni explains that two and three sport athletes are common and its often because there is a need for players to fill rosters. But whatever the sport, whomever the child, the message is the same.
“The things we try to teach them: responsibility, being respectful, having fun and building relationships with other kids — that’s our big thing — and work hard. It just always amazes me how hard they push themselves and how good they are because they push themselves and work hard and take a lot of pride in the work that they have done.”
The hard work is paying off, as the success of runners like Hunter has helped grow the team from only seven runners to more than 20. Proving that being a good role model is just as important as being a good runner.
“That’s another thing we try to teach them,” Toni said. “We tell them, ‘remember those kids you admired so much that were older when you were younger, you want to be that.’”
Hunter has a chance to be just that. As he gets ready for the 3A/2A/1A state championship meet on Saturday at Lane Community College in Eugene, he was one goal in mind.
“Top-10,” he said. “I want to medal, I would love to get top eight.”
Is he nervous?
“Not as nervous as I was for districts. Going into districts I was scared because, you know, if I had a bad race I knew there would be people behind. At state, you’ve got nothing to lose.”
Hunter will return to state for the second consecutive year — last year he finished in 15th (17:19) — and when he enters his senior year he will pass on the torch to his younger sister, Madelyn, who as a freshman at Heppner is one of the top runners on the girls team.
“She’s another good role model,” Hunter says of his younger sister, who despite not qualifying for state has finished as Heppner’s No. 1 or No. 2 runner all season.
The one thing that is tough for Madelyn is she never had anyone to run with before joining the team, her father explains.
“If you train with tough people and fast people, you get yourself faster,” Russ said. “We didn’t have that for a while, especially on the girls side but we do now.”
Contact Alexis at email@example.com or 541-564-4542. Follow her on Twitter @almansanarez.