Oak Ridge boys come together at mid-season

By: Matt Long
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Oak Ridge senior and top cross country runner Benji Xie has three goals for the varsity boys’ on Saturday at the CIF state cross country championships at Woodward Park in Fresno. Any of the three goals would be satisfactory, but there is a hierarchy to them. The first goal is to improve on last year’s performance when the team placed 16th. The team’s top-two runners a year ago, Amjed Aboukhadijeh and Nathan Williams, have graduated, but the other five are back for another year. Xie, a senior, will be competing in the state meet for the third time in four years, missing out only as a sophomore. Seniors Zachary Speno, Clay McNamee and Jeroen Keukenkamp, along with sophomore Evan Baxter will be running in the meet for the second straight year, while sophomores Brandon Williams, Dusty Armstrong and Marcos Conde will be competing for the first time. “If you had told me that we’d make the state meet with this group at the beginning of the year I wouldn’t have believed it,” Xie said. “We’ve got all seniors and sophomores and even at mid-season I wasn’t sure how we’d do. Brandon came out of nowhere and is a multi-talented guy and a competitor. Dusty is another sophomore who’s stepped up. “Last year Amjed and Nathan were front runners, but this year’s team has more depth. I think we run more together and we work and feed off each other.” Oak Ridge coach Rob Fairley saw the team coming together in late September. “It’s been an incredible ride for the boys,” Fairley said. “I didn’t think this team was as strong as last year’s team with the loss of Amjed and Nathan, but we’ve had a lot of guys improve. Like Benji said, Brandon came out from nowhere, Benji’s been great and Clay has improved his times by 40 to 45 seconds over last year and that’s pretty significant for a 5K race.” As the team’s most experienced and No. 1 runner, Xie leads more by example than by his words. He considers himself a hands-off leader, believing he doesn’t have to do much to get the team going. “Last year Amjed always got the team amped up, but I’m just the opposite,” Xie said. “I’m here for the guys and we’re here for each other if we need something, but the guys know what to do.” As a freshman Xie finished the 3.1-mile race at the state meet in 16 minutes, 48 seconds. Last year as a junior he finished in 16:29. He’s got his sights set high for Saturday, as he hopes to improve last year’s time by a minute. “My goal for myself is to break 15:30,” Xie said. “I’ve had good workouts and feel really good and I know I can go faster this year. Woodward Park is a fun course, a course that you can go fast on. The first mile is down hill and I feel comfortable on the course.” Xie said the team’s other goals are to place in the top-10 and to break the 2006 Oak Ridge state team’s average finish time of 16:25. “Top-10 would be nice, but I definitely think we can beat the 16:25 time,” Xie said. “We’ve raced less and trained more this season and I feel the team is feeling strong coming into the state meet.”