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Raft River's Season Transforms From Dream to Reality
The Trojans began their journey with little experience or resources. Now they're on track for a state title
Published: 10/30/2020 3:12:44 PM
 


Picture this: seven girls pose with the cross country state championship trophy. 

Five of them have never run cross country before. Their coaches have minimal cross country experience; they drive the team bus. Before this year, their school hadn’t sponsored a girls cross country team since the ‘90s; none of this sudden success guarantees the school a cross country team next year or beyond.

Only part of that scenario is hypothetical, most of it is reality.

That’s the remarkable situation for Raft River High School. Fielding the school’s first girls cross country team since 1999, with five first-year cross country runners and coaches who got the jobs by default, the Trojans are the favorites to win this weekend’s 1A state title. Many of the team’s runners joined merely to get in shape for basketball season, but what has transpired is an underdog story that’s fit for a movie.

Do you believe in miracles?

“It’s really crazy,” said senior Karlee Christensen. “A lot of us joke that it’s almost like a Disney movie.”

Christensen and her twin sister, Kaybree, unknowingly began building the team two years ago.

The twins, though accomplished track and field athletes, had never run cross country before. Volleyball was their fall sport. Some family members urged them to give cross country a try through the years, and they obliged in fall 2018, their sophomore year at Raft River.

There was one problem: Raft River didn’t have a cross country team. There’s normally not enough interest in cross country at the small school in Malta (enrollment: just over 100) to justify funding a team. The twins’ parents, Mike and Brooke Christensen, wanted their daughters to have the opportunity to try a new sport and volunteered to coach and train the twins and transport them to meets during the season.

Mike and Brooke both have coaching know-how: Brooke coached junior high volleyball for a handful of years and Mike is an assistant coach for Raft River’s varsity girls basketball team. They essentially had to learn cross country from scratch.

“We had a lot of coaches reach out to us and say, ‘Hey, this is what your girls should be doing, don’t do this, do this,’” said Brooke Christensen. “We had a lot of parents, athletes, a whole bunch of support, just wanting our girls to succeed. … It’s been a learning curve for me, for sure.”

Whether it was due to brilliant coaching or the gift of natural athleticism, the twins excelled right away. Kaybree won her first-ever meet and Karlee wasn’t far behind in sixth place. Kaybree won again at her next race, and this time Karlee was second.

Perhaps the results shouldn’t have been surprising considering the twins’ track pedigrees. When they were freshmen, they helped the Raft River girls win a track and field state title. Both girls placed in the top five in three different events at the state meet, highlighted by Kaybree’s individual title in the 1,600 meters.

“I think freshman-year track helped because we had a big team and we had some coaches that were able to help us and train us,” Kaybree Christensen said. “And then the success and confidence we gained there we were able to move over into cross country and we were able to use some of the workouts and stuff that we’d done with the distance (races) in track. That was helpful.”


 

The twins continued their cross country success late into the season. Kaybree and Karlee finished 1-2 at the final three meets before state, including the district championship. Ten days later, they went 1-2 at state, Kaybree coasting to the title in 18:28.74 and Karlee finishing second in 18:55.52. There is no record of any other Raft River girls cross country runner placing at state - let alone winning it - in the Idaho High School Activities Association’s online record book, which offers year-by-year state results dating back to 1985.

“They’re extremely blessed,” Brooke Christensen said. “They’re just good athletes. But the other thing is, they work really, really hard for it. We have not had any professional training or anything.”

The twins continued to perform well as juniors, again finishing 1-2 at districts. They were bested by a few seconds at state, but still finished strong with Kaybree in second and Karlee in third.

Despite all the success, something was missing from their cross country experience.

“We’d go to the meets and we’d see the other teams all together and laughing and having a fun time together, and they’d always be pushing each other (during the race),” Karlee Christensen said. “And it was always just us.”

So, the Christensens started recruiting. An offhand suggestion to a friend here, a playful hint there. Mike Christensen’s selling point to his basketball players was to use cross country as a fun way to get in shape for the season.

Some girls joined just for that. Some have siblings running cross country and wanted to give it a shot. Another was on a hike when she made the decision. In all, five more girls joined the team this year, mostly hoping to have fun, stay active and try something new. Mike and Brooke Christensen would remain the head coaches, driving the team to meets in a mini bus.

“We didn’t really have to do too much convincing,” Kaybree Christensen said. “We just kind of threw it out there, kind of as a joke, and then they actually decided to (join).”

With the five first-timers in tow, expectations were low. Growing the program was the priority, and if folks were patient, winning would come.

But the winning came earlier than expected.

The Trojans’ third meet of the season was the Tiger-Grizz Invitational, an annual event that attracts dozens of schools from all over Idaho. Raft River placed third in the team standings there, ahead of Bear Lake, one of the top-ranked 2A teams that has produced three of the last four individual state champions.

A few days later, the Trojans won the six-team Magic Mountain Invitational, which included defending 1A state champion Oakley.

One week after that, Raft River won a four-team quad meet. The team the Trojans narrowly edged for first place was the Soda Springs Cardinals, authors of the greatest cross country dynasty in Idaho history with 14 consecutive 2A state titles and counting.

“They just started running and we did way better than we ever thought they would,” Brooke Christensen said. “To beat Soda Springs, that’s won state for 14 years in a row, that’s crazy.”

Raft River has beaten Soda Springs two more times since then and has also outpaced 3A power Sugar-Salem and 4A contender Twin Falls. The Trojans capped the regular season with a dominant district championship, placing their top five runners in first, second, third, sixth and eighth.

No one can point to precisely why this Raft River team is as good as it is. The Christensen twins are clearly talented; they’re both signing to run at Utah State University, Brooke Christensen said. But what about the other five girls? Perhaps they’re also natural cross country runners. Perhaps the low expectations dismissed any pressure. Maybe the coaches who claim to not know much about cross country know their stuff after all.

“I just did it to get in shape for basketball ... but I had no expectations. I never even thought about winning any meets,” sophomore Livy Smith said. “And now that we did so good and we're preparing for state, it's kind of shocking. I'm pushing myself harder now.”

Only one weekend remains for this one-of-a-kind Trojans team, and expectations are suddenly high. Kaybree and Karlee Christensen own the fastest times in the 1A classification this season, and freshman Allie Black is ranked fourth, projecting Raft River to cruise to a state championship. The impact of a historic feat such as that likely won’t be realized for years, if not decades.

By then, maybe the story of this Raft River team won’t just feel like a Disney movie -- it will be one.

“I’m like, ‘You guys don’t realize how special this is. There’s schools that take years to get teams like this, and you guys just came in and can do it,’” Brooke Christensen said. “It’ll probably never happen again.”

 
 


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