It doesn’t seem possible that sophomore year has arrived for Luke Athay and Nelah Roberts.

Athay, a cross country runner and track athlete for Idaho Falls, and Roberts, who competes in the same sports at Skyline, both expressed disbelief at how quickly summer disappeared.

“It flew so fast,” Athay said after a recent practice. “It feels like I had two weeks (after state track) and then it was cross country season.”

Yet here they are, returning medalists for defending state champion cross country teams entering new eras.

Representing rival District 91 schools in different classifications, Athay and Roberts share much in common. Both are the third siblings in running families. Athay credits older sister Jane for getting him and older brother Mitchell, a Utah State signee and member of four consecutive I.F. state championship teams, into running. Roberts’ older brother Harrison was a member of Skyline’s 2016 4A boys state title team and older sister Adria was on Skyline’s 2017 4A girls state title team, achievements she matched and surpassed by becoming Skyline’s first individual girls state champion last October to lead the Grizz to the 4A girls team title.

After noteworthy high school debuts, Athay and Roberts both said they feel like more attention is on them.

“Last year, I was kinda the underdog,” Roberts said by phone. “Now that I’ve accomplished some things, pressure is more of a factor. I’ve set goals for the season. Last year, I really didn’t. ...whatever happens, happens. This year, I’ve really tried to keep those goals in mind and help my team out as well.”

A year later, Roberts has set more goals, including running 17:30.

“It’s pretty lofty and far-fetched, but I think I can do it,” she said.

Athay’s first state meet also ended with a bang, as he passed two seniors in the final 300 meters to place fourth in 15:56. He tends to set time oriented goals during track season rather than cross country, but getting a new personal best is always exciting. He added that he would like to shoot for the 5A individual gold and help the Tigers get another state team banner.

“We’ve worked hard and had a great summer,” Athay said. “I think we have a strong team.”

Five points or fewer have decided 4A girls team titles three of the last four years, and last year was no different as Skyline edged Preston 62-67. Longtime coach Sean Schmidt expects another tight trophy race, and more local hardware.

“On the girls side, I don’t think anyone is gonna get a trophy except for eastern Idaho,” he said.

Idaho Falls has its first meet Thursday while Skyline begins the season Friday.

Sophomore year may have arrived faster than expected, but it has reunited Athay and Roberts with their teammates. And while their roles look different upon the graduation of the class of 2021, they are grateful to be in supportive settings.

Roberts gained friendship and inspiration from 2021 seniors Reagan Hart and Sariah Harrison, who joined her and Marina Renna as Grizz medalists last October. Roberts, who ran an all-time east Idaho best 17:52.06 at state to join Harrison as the lone east Idaho girls to ever break 18 minutes for a 5k cross country course, said Harrison and Hart celebrated all their teammates’ successes, regardless of who finished ahead of who.

“They were just really supportive of me,” Roberts said.”When the incoming freshmen come, if some of them beat me, you just never know. You just always want to be super supportive of them.”

Athay said 2021 senior medalists Zac Bright, Joseph Ereaux, Porter Elison and older brother Mitchell embodied work ethic, leading by example and, most of all, forming true friendships with teammates.

“It’s okay to have fun,” Athay said. “I think that’s the most important thing I learned from them.”

I.F. head coach Alan McMurtrey also holds this in high regard. He reminds his athletes about ‘the joy in the journey’ with high school sports: setting goals and looking ahead, but also enjoying the present.

“You’re starting this journey that is multiple year, multiple season,” McMurtrey said. “You gotta have some fun along the way and have patience.”

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