Crater's boys cross country team celebrates its 5A three-peat last year.
Crater's boys cross country team celebrates its 5A three-peat last year.

Crater has long been the gold standard in 5A boys cross country, winning eight state championships in 13 seasons, including the last three.

But if the Comets are going to extend their supremacy in 2019, it appears they will have to dig a little deeper. Not only did they lose their top runner in state runner-up Jantz Tostenson, who is starting his college career at Georgetown, but the threat from district rival Ashland is more real than ever.

The Grizzlies, led by one of the nation’s top runners in senior Evan Holland, were voted No. 1 in the preseason OSAAtoday 5A coaches poll, with Crater at No. 2.

“They’ve got incredible talent, and some depth, too,” Crater coach Justin Loftus said. “It’s going to be really hard to match up with them. It’s going to be exciting.

“They’re probably gunning for a state title, for sure, and feeling good about it, but we’ll do all we can to fight back. We have some tough kids.”

The senior-dominated Comets need to raise their game in the absence of Tostenson, and so far, seniors Matthew Schenk (18th at state) and Gage Reed (eighth) “are definitely popping out,” according to Loftus.

Schenk, in particular, is on a roll. In track season, he made dramatic improvement in the 1,500 meters by clocking 4:01.75, continuing his sharp rise since running 4:55.30 as a freshman.

“It was definitely fun to watch, and it sparked the rest of our guys this summer to train harder,” Loftus said.

Crater also has seniors JC Herring (13th at state) and Matthew Medina (33rd) and junior Conner Sutton (47th). Senior Ryland McCullough (17th) is transferring to a school in Washington.

Even though Tostenson has moved on, his impact is felt by his teammates, especially after a stirring runner-up performance in the 5A track meet when he ran 8:15.01 in the 3,000 meters, a personal best by 13 seconds.

“The kids seeing that -- and what he did on a regular basis, just doing a percentage of that -- some of them are saying, ‘Hey, I can do this,’” Loftus said. “It definitely sparks the younger kids, and that’s what we live on. He was definitely a staple. He was connected 100 percent for a long time.”

Loftus, the team’s coach for 19 seasons, said the Comets have sustained their success by finding athletes who are willing to be a part of the system, learn from more experienced teammates and “use that grit and determination.”

“I think we work as hard as any other team out there, and the kids definitely bring that to the races,” he said. “Sometimes we’re working with good talent out of middle school, and other times it’s just kids that are out there ready to grind every day.”