The Rams finished 10th at state last year, but they're ranked third in the coaches poll as they head into the final race.

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The Ingraham cross-country team has a simple philosophy for a sport that can be physically and mentally grueling.

Have fun.

“When you have fun people to run with, it’s more fun to run. That’s always been our mantra as a team,” said Rams coach Bob Swift. “It’s a lot easier to run with a bunch of people you care about. It’s mostly about being cool to each other. We’re here to do a thing, and that thing involves us running well. But we also want kids to get something out of this that they can take beyond just running.”

That focus on camaraderie, fun and friendship has helped bolster an Ingraham team that raced to a second-place finish at the Class 3A SeaKing District championship meet last weekend and that is prepping for a return to the state cross-country meet at the Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco for the third consecutive season.

“I think it’s the great community we have here,” senior Josephine Maiorano said. “Everyone has so many friends on the team that you want to come to practices to hang out with your friends.”

The Rams’ bond is strengthened daily at practice. Runners share a “peach and a pit” with each other – a highlight from their day and a low light. They bounce ideas off of each other and talk about race strategy.

But it’s after a tough race that Ingraham’s closeness is really on display.

“I think, a lot of people, during the races, kind of struggle with the mental part of it,” said sophomore Ella Montgomery, who finished 38th at the state meet as a freshman. “So, as a team, being really open with each other and having a really strong friendship helps.”

Lydia Montgomery, Ella’s older sister and a senior, added: “No matter how bad you feel after your race, you know that people are going to support you and talk you out of your bad mood.”

To viewers, the Rams cross-country team appears to be having a blast. That helped convince senior Lauren Holzman to give it a shot her senior year.

“It’s been a really good experience for me. I’m really glad I joined this year,” Holzman said. “… I’m really pumped being around all these people and getting to experience it with them.”

Unlike in past trips when Ingraham was just excited qualify for the state meet, the Rams come into the final race of the year ranked third in Class 3A in the latest coaches poll behind Holy Names and North Central of Spokane.

Senior Anya Hirschfield, who has committed to run at Dartmouth after his season, placed first at last week’s district meet. She finished 31st at the state meet a season ago with a time of 19:05.00 and has the sixth-fastest time in 3A this season (18:10.9).

Along with her teammates, Hirschfield is eager to return to Pasco to improve upon last year’s 10th-place finish.

“We’ve kind of had a breakthrough season, I think,” Hirschfield said. “… I feel like we’ve made it to state but it’s kind of been a surprise every time, like, we don’t think we’re going to make it. I think this year it’s a little different because we’re ranked pretty high up there.”

Swift believes his team’s experience will help. He said having runners who have already ran the course at the state meet can, “chill people out a bit.”

The Ingraham coach would like to finish higher than last year. But most of all, he hopes his runners keep having fun.

“We want to be modest with our expectations. But I won’t lie, a podium spot would be really freaking great,” Swift said. “… We’re strong, kids know what they’re doing, they feel more confident and we should just go in doing what we’ve been doing. If we run how we normally run, things will happen.”

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State cross-country championships

When: Saturday (Race Schedule: wheelchair, 9:30 a.m.; 1B/2B girls, 10 a.m.; 1A girls, 10:30 a.m.; 2A girls, 11 a.m.; 1B/2B boys, 11:30 a.m.; 1A boys, noon; 3A girls, 12:30 p.m.; 4A girls, 1 p.m.; 2A boys, 1:30 p.m.; 3A boys, 2 p.m.; 4A boys, 2:30 p.m.)

Where: Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco

Follow along: On Twitter, @wiaawa or @morrow_jeff

Top storylines: The girls 4A race should, once again, go down to the wire. Lake Stevens senior Taylor Roe won the title her freshman and sophomore years, and finished second in 2017, just 2.6 seconds behind Lewis and Clark’s Katie Thornson. Thornson has graduated and Roe finished 50 seconds ahead of the closest returning runner from last year’s meet. However, Issaquah sophomore Julia David-Smith, who finished 56th in her first state meet, has the top time in the state this year (17:16.4), which is six seconds ahead of Roe’s (17:22.6). … Last year saw North Central of Spokane’s streak of 11 consecutive 3A boys state championships snapped by Kamiakin, which finished almost 40 points ahead of its closest competitor. The Braves are ranked No. 1 in 3A by coaches again, but North Central – along with fourth-place finisher Edmonds-Woodway – are hoping to challenge Kamiakin this season. … The North Central girls are also the defending 3A girls champs and come into the state meet as the top-ranked team in the coaches’ poll. The Indians are led by junior Erinn Hill, who won last year with a time of 17:55.30. Along with her sister Mia Hill, who finished sixth, the pair were two of four runners to finish in the top eight for North Central.

Five athletes to watch:

Luke Houser, Woodinville: Houser, who finished 11th at the 4A state meet as a sophomore two years ago, missed most of last year’s cross-country season with a foot injury. Now a senior – and healthy – Houser has the top time in the state in all classifications this year at 14:57.2, which won the prestigious Hole in the Wall race earlier in the season.

Bradley Peloquin, Gig Harbor: The Tides’ senior finished finished sixth in 2016 and third at the 3A state meet a season ago, helping lead his Gig Harbor team to a fifth-place finish. Peloquin has the top 3A time so far this season (15:06.5), almost eight seconds ahead of the closest runner.

Luke Knoblich, Liberty: This will mark the fourth consecutive season Knoblich has been a state participant for Liberty, which has finished fourth, third and second over that span. Knoblich, who finished 15th at last year’s state meet, has the third-fastest time in the classification this season and will try to lead the Patriots to an upset over perennial 2A power Sehome.

Naomi Smith, King’s: In her first season participating in cross country, all Smith did in 2017 was finish seventh at the 1A state meet and help lead the Knights to a sixth-place finish. This season, Smith has the third-fastest girls time in Washington state regardless of classification (17:27.9) as she hopes to help top-ranked King’s bring home a title.

Ella Borsheim, Bellarmine Prep: The Lions’ freshman has torn up the track in her first high-school season, winning the West Central District title by about 45 seconds. Borsheim has the third-fastest time in 4A this season (17:32.0), just behind Roe and David-Smith.

Favorites: 4A boys: Camas; 3A boys: Kamiakin; 2A boys: Sehome; 1A boys: Lakeside-Nine Mile Falls; 1B/2B: boys: Northwest Christian-Lacey; 4A girls: Lewis and Clark; 3A girls: North Central; 2A girls: Pullman; 1A girls: King’s; 1B/2B girls: Liberty Bell.

Last: The Sehome boys enter the state meet ranked No. 1 in Class 2A. The Mariners have won the past six team titles and finished first at the state meet in eight of the past 10 seasons.