SPARKS - With Carson High School's Shanna Sparks all alone out front, the conclusion of the Northern 4A Zone girls cross country race looked more like the finish of a runaway Olympic marathon than a high school meet featuring the region's best runners.
Sparks was more than one minute ahead of her nearest competitor, Galena's Tatyana Tibaduiza, as she entered the Reed High track stadium for the final 250 yards of the 3.1-mile course, cleared the final water barrier unhindered, and cruised to the finish line to become the first Senator individual girls champion since Kim Orlando in 1990.
Sparks' win in the individual girls race highlighted a successful day for both the Senator boys and girls teams, as both teams qualified for state with third-place performances.
"We're happy to get both of our teams to state and are glad we'll be competing for another week," said Carson coach Jason Macy.
South Tahoe beat Reno for the first time this season to win the boys' team title; McQueen came on strong over the final mile to take the girls title ahead of Reno.
Lowry's Bret Ferrier won the boys' individual title in 17:23.
Although just a freshman, the diminutive Sparks ran like an experienced senior. Feeling claustrophobic among the pack of 80 runners in the opening quarter mile of the race, she burst to the front and relentlessly increased her lead. Her finishing time, despite breezy conditions, was 19:39 and approached Abby Miller's (Green Valley High, Las Vegas) course record of 19:17. Tibaduiza was second in 20:55.
Amazingly enough, Sparks said she didn't feel her best during the race.
"It felt pretty easy, but I was having a lot of cramps," said Sparks after the race, surrounded by a half dozen of her close friends from Carson High and Bethlehem Lutheran School who had traveled to watch her race. "I was concerned about being boxed in at the start - that made me want to get up to the front.
"I never looked back and took off."
With Sparks out front, the rest of the Senator girls took aim at the McQueen runners. For the first mile, Caitlin Prunty, Megan Zahnter, and Katy Hoffman were ahead of the Lancer pack, but they faded slightly over the second half of the race as McQueen, coached by Miguel Tibaduiza, raced to its first-ever cross country championship.
"I told the girls to get out fast and they did," Macy said. "We'll reevaluate our strategy next week (for state). McQueen has been running tough, but Reno is within our reach."
Sparks will now meet Miller, the three-time defending state champion, on the same Reed course next Saturday at the 4A state meet.
"I'm glad it's here," Sparks said. "I'm looking forward to it - it will probably be a battle."
In the boys' individual race, Carson's No. 1 runner Daryl Nourse did exactly what he had planned before the race and ran stride-for-stride with Lowry's Bret Ferrier for the first half of the race. But like Sparks, he wasn't at 100 percent on Thursday.
"I wasn't feeling too good, and at about 1.5 miles (Ferrier) started pulling away," Nourse said.
"I didn't really surge, but tried to keep at the same pace," said Ferrier, third at the state track meet in the 3,200 last spring.
Nourse kept running well enough to hang in the chase pack next to McQueen's Justin Fricke until the final water barrier, when Fricke pulled away for second in 17:27 and Nourse came in third in 17:30, seven seconds behind Ferrier. Nourse's time was 34 seconds faster than his previous best on the Reed course.
"(Ferrier) had quite a big lead, so we made up some time," said Nourse, already looking forward to state. "I'll hopefully feel better - it'll be a whole new race."
Carson's defending zone champion, Evan Fischer, made a courageous attempt to stay with the leaders, moving up to seventh midway through the race but eventually finishing 11th in 18:16.
The other Carson scorers were Paul Capistrant (16th, 18:26), Blake Baldwin (25th, 18:51) and Ryan Costella (28th, 19:01).
"Evan and Paul had great races and continue to move up," Macy said. "In the fourth and fifth positions, we still need someone to step up their running."
Douglas' Rebecca Pope and Taryn Mendive qualified for state as individuals; Darren Muren was the Tigers top finisher in 26th place in 18:59.
The Galena girls qualified for state with their fourth place team finish. The Grizzlie boys were ninth, but Chad Sanada qualified for state as an individual with his seventh place finish.