Joel Wingard is entering his 35th year as a high school cross country coach. He started his career at Peninsula High in the 1970s, jumped to Gig Harbor High for 18 years and has been back at PHS since 2003.
Wingard’s teams are regularly at the state meet, a feat that can be attributed to the system and culture he’s built. He saw no reason to change it this year.
“We’ve tweaked a few things, but I’ve had a program in place that I used at Gig Harbor and I developed largely at Gig Harbor, and I put it into place here, and the system works pretty well,” he said. “It’s tweaking; there’s nothing dramatically different.”
On the girls side, the team returns its talented one-two punch of McKenzi Bravo and Sarah Manning.
“They were top-10 placers at district, and they were also both all-state,” Wingard said. “So that’s the key, that’s our top end. It’s just getting the other girls to believe they can run more or less with them.”
The return of Bravo and Manning could mean a top-three state finish at the 3A classification.
“Our girls have been third the last two years at state,” Wingard said. “They’ve won the league, and they’ve been second at district both years. I think this is a very similar team, so we expect to be at least as good as we were in the last two years.”
Bravo thinks it’s a realistic goal.
“We have a couple solid returners, some new girls that are looking really promising and girls that are in their second year, and I think they’ve trained a lot in the last year and learned a lot,” she said.
Bravo’s personal record came last year at Chambers Bay, where she completed the 3.1-mile course in 18 minutes, 45 seconds. The senior said she wants to be even faster this year.
“I’m hoping to get under 18:30, and hopefully eight at state,” she said. “I was supposed to get eighth last year, and I got 11th.”
Mary Eldridge, another senior, recorded her personal best at the Curtis Invitational, during which she ran 21:11. Her goal isn’t to shatter records, but she hopes she can experience the biggest stage.
“I want to run at state, just run at it,” Eldridge said. “I was an alternate last year.”
The Peninsula boys missed state last year, but they return the entire varsity team.
“I think we’ll be much improved,” Wingard said. “They missed state last year by two places, so I think it’s very realistic for us to get to state and hopefully be a top 10 team.”
Wingard said there are no dominant boys runners, and that makes it imperative for the team to push each other and continue to improve.
“They’re all much better than they were last year,” Wingard said. “Our first week would indicate our guys team is way ahead of where they were last year, so it’s a whole bunch of guys that are about even.
“It’ll be a team effort,” he said. “We don’t have anybody like McKenzi or Sarah that can be a dominant individual, but we’ve got a lot of good runners.”
Seniors Nolan Winter and Paul Alvestad will lead the boys side. Winter wants to break the 17-minute mark this year; his previous best is 17:32 at the Fort Steilacoom Invitational.
“We definitely want to make it to state,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good potential.”
Alvestad hopes to race faster than 17:30 after he posted a personal record of 18:03 at Fort Steilacoom last year.
“Guys are trying to be top 10 in state, that’s what our team goal is,” Alvestad said. “We have a good, really young team.”