* Corner Canyon secured an automatic bid to NXN on Saturday at NXR Southwest
- - -
CASA GRANDE, ARIZONA -- On Friday at the pre-race walk-through for the Nike Cross Nationals Southwest Regional, the Corner Canyon High School boys made sure to emphasize something they had been telling themselves all fall.
Remember, it's just another day at the office.
"I think a big part of it is recognizing that we can be the best team out there," senior Easton Allred said. "But it's also recognizing that there are a lot of good teams out there that if we don't show up, they'll kick our butts."
On Saturday, the No. 4 ranked Chargers did just that, clocking in for a few more hours before leaving Arizona with their first NXR Southwest title and first berth to Nike Cross Nationals in team history.
"I think it's awesome," said senior Mark Boyle, who was Corner Canyon's highest finisher in 10th-place. "We can now focus on NXN. Before it was a bit early and we didn't want to jump the gun. Now we can actually go all-in and say we're going. We get the automatic bid."
The boys from Draper, Utah scored a decisive victory with 89 points, watching as its top three runners -- Allred, Boyle and Caleb Johnson -- all finished inside the top 25, while Alex Harbertson and AJ Rowland followed in 43rd and 45th place.
"We've all been so excited for this race for so long," junior Ben Dastrup said. "To finally just get out there and to run on the course, just running for each other. And obviously, we achieved what we wanted to do today and it was really fun to prepare for that, mentally and physically, and then go out and do it."
Down the ladder, though, things were a little crazier. Mountain Vista claimed its third straight berth to NXN, earning an automatic spot with a second-place finish (131) over third-place Dakota Ridge (173), which was ranked fifth nationally as a team entering the meet.
While the result may have been a bit of a surprise, the Golden Eagle never doubted themselves.
"The biggest thing was, we beat Dakota earlier in the season," senior Jack O'Sullivan said of the team's Pat Patten Invitational win in September. "And so we knew we had it in us to beat them. And to compete with them. It was just a matter of needing to all put our best race together. And that happened today."
Individually, Valor Christian's Cole Sprout dictated the pace from the front, earning his second straight NXR Southwest victory with a winning time of 14:41.38.
"It's a super competitive region out here, so it's always kind of fun to come out and race against the guys," Sprout said. "We had a good showing for Colorado, so that's always super cool. It was a good race, a little muddy, muddier than it has been. But it was a pretty quick run and it felt good."
He held off a strong challenge from Stansbury's Carson Belnap, who wasn't far behind in 14:42.03. Niwot's Cruz Culpepper was third (14:54.56), Dakota Ridge's Connor Ohlson was fourth (14:55.07) and Thompson Valley's Dylan Schubert was fifth (14:58.01). Gateway's Yasin Sado, who was 26th last year, was sixth overall, grabbing the final automatic berth.
For Culpepper, who missed last year's installment due to sickness, he was redeemed with a solid outing.
"Coming through and executing, even not on a great day was good," he said.
Things went closer to plan in the individual race, with three individuals -- Sprout, Ohlson, Schubert -- all claiming their second straight bids to NXN.
A strong early pace for Jordan Black, the North Phoenix Prep Division 4 champion who charged into the lead from the gun and tried to hold a fast pace, came back to him in the final mile. He finished 15th overall.
Largely, though, this was a race for new beginnings -- and validation -- for the best team from Utah in 2019.
Allred transferred into the program over the summer, boosting what was already a strong team a year ago -- the Chargers were fifth at NXR Southwest in 2018 and claimed a Class 5A title in Utah.
But while the Chargers repeated as state champions in October, the team felt their true mission was to qualify for nationals. No one was eager to say that until it was finalized.
On Friday, Boyle stated there was a pressure in being labeled as the region's strongest team.
"We don't really like to be the favorite," he said. "It's a lot of pressure. So we're trying to pretend that we're not and come at it like we're the underdogs."
Minutes before the start of the region on Saturday, Corner Canyon found a way to calm down the nerves. And it was in that breathless -- and nerve-free moment -- that Boyle and his teammates finally felt like they were ready to fire to go for a regional title.
"I feel like it helped calm my nerves a ton," he said. "You could see that in the race."