After a significant trophy haul in four years of 4A competition, the Idaho Falls cross-country team is moving to 5A.
The Tigers won three consecutive 4A boys state titles, a program-first girls state title, and last year became District 6's first cross-country program to sweep 4A state titles.
Competing in 5A is no new venture for Alan McMurtrey, who has coached in 5A for 17 of the 21 years he has been Idaho Falls head coach. He said the Tigers look forward to the challenge.
"I'm pretty familiar with how strong some of those teams are," McMurtrey said. "The difference in competition level, we know it's tough. My kids, we're trying not to skip a beat."
The move brings 5A District 5-6 to five teams and adds to an already loaded conference, particularly for the boys. Madison battled Rigby for the last three district titles, placed third at the last two 5A state meets and graduated one from its seven runners at state last November. Thunder Ridge graduated BYU signee Stetson Moss, but returns everyone else while Rigby graduated two of last year's state runners.
"They're the real deal," Thunder Ridge head coach Bob Hagert said of the Idaho Falls boys, whom he tabbed as 5A state title favorites. "We have a district that's tough already, then you add I.F. I.F. is the creme of the crop, but the teams below it are tougher than people realize."
McMurtrey and Idaho Falls senior Zac Bright said the boys team is chasing more history this fall. No Idaho Falls High team in any sport has won four consecutive state titles.
"We're gonna be pretty small compared to those teams out there, but I'm pretty excited to get out and compete against those schools from Boise," said Bright, who won the 4A individual state title last season. "Our goal is the same, to get that fourth title."
As for the girls, McMurtrey said there is a little less depth as the boys team has greater numbers. Like the boys, however, the Idaho Falls girls return multiple state medalists.
"The girls know that it's gonna be a lot harder (in 5A)," McMurtrey said. "We just want to be as competitive as we can. As far as the top kids competing for those top spots, the key thing is to stay healthy. They've come into the season strong as a group."
With Idaho Falls' departure, the 4A state and district titles are up for grabs. District 6's top two returning girls from 2019 are in 4A: Bonneville sophomore and defending individual state runner-up Alivia Johnson and Skyline senior, three-time individual district champion and three-time state medalist Sariah Harrison.
Harrison said she hasn't thought much about the Tigers leaving 4A, but looks forward to still seeing them at meets.
"We're still good friends," Harrison said. "We'll be able to cheer them on at the state meet now."
Harrison, who battled injury last season, was diagnosed earlier this year with a tightened fascia, a muscle that surrounds tissue in the foot. The injury reduces flexibility and causes trigger points of pain, and she went six months after cross-country where 'every step hurt.' Upon working with a physical therapist for a few months, she resumed running in June.
Even amid the uncertainty of COVID-19, Harrison said she is grateful to be running again.
"Running has been amazing, like a miracle," Harrison said. "I'm not worried about the season getting canceled. I'm just really excited for this season. It will be good whatever it is."
McMurtrey, Hagert, Skyline head coach Sean Schmidt, Sugar-Salem head coach Brett Hill and South Fremont head coach Ryan Campbell all said they have told their runners to prepare for adjustments due to COVID-19. Some meets, like the annual Bob Firman Invitational which draws nationally ranked teams to Eagle Island State Park every September, have already been canceled.
Bright, whose last official meet was at February's Simplot Games in Pocatello, spent the summer running in groups of no more than four people and is now training in a group of 10 per I.F.'s practice precautions. He said he is approaching this fall like he did the spring before track season was canceled: train as if it will happen as scheduled.
"I know we don't have a lot of opportunity to be faster than last year (with cancellations)," Bright said. "I want to take this season to be the absolute best I can be with what I have."