Saturday afternoon in Lithia Park a drum beat started. The higher up Winburn Way, the louder and faster the drumming. A small roar erupts from a crowd hidden behind the red, yellow and orange wall of October leaves. And then, there it is, a flash of skin and uniform. Another roar erupts from the crowd.




This is the State of Jefferson Invitational, the cross country met held annually in the park. The drumming? Bongo players lined up at the finish line, cheering on runners as they pass. The crowd? Hundreds of runners, their coaches, family and friends. Twenty-four teams, spanning from Roseburg to Mt. Shasta, converge in the hills of Lithia for this race.




School areas are clearly defined by the groups of uniquely colored attire. Everywhere, in groups of three or four, people stand, clad in neon green and white, black and red, red and white. Parents wearing sweatshirt with team mascots and catch-phrases scurry from area to area, hoping to see their children run by.




The runners behave like typical teenagers. They stand in groups of friends, or sometimes even with opponents, chatting, laughing and text-messaging away. Mostly, they run from place to place, stopping every so often to grab orange slices and water from the courtesy table. For the moment this is a great place to be.




For the Ashland high cross country team, this is the perfect opportunity to show off their stuff. The Invitational is an opportunity to show the rest of the state how they run. The fact that they get to do it in front of their home crowd? The icing on the cake.




So sweet a cake to eat indeed, as the Ashland cross country team used inspired individual performances to sweep the men's and women's team titles.




First, senior Aria Hemphill paced the girls with a fourth-place mark of 20:34.26. Her teammates, Mya Kass, Camelia Mayfield, Erika Hultz, Hannah Ewing and Jordan Kling, all turned in top-50 performances of their own and Ashland cruised to the title.




"Today they were incredible. They ran with pure guts," said Ashland assistant coach Jeff Olsen.




While the girls team did run on guts, Ewing and Kling especially did. The two were the sixth and seventh runners for the team, but moved up due to late injuries. Fortunately it could not have worked out better, and the girls proved the true strength and depth of the women's squad.




On the boys side, sophomore Wilder Schaaf fights through a tough battle at the end to win the individual title in 16:48.29. Senior Matt Miner, 17:11.62, places fourth and junior Ryland Karlovich, 17:29.56, seventh, helping the Grizzlies capture the team title. Freshman Colin and sophomore Cord Walsh round out the Grizz standings with top-30 finishes of their own.




The actual races rile up the crowd. Junior varsity, varsity, or even the "fun" run for spectators and coaches. The girls cheer for the boys, and the boys for the girls. The further along the runners make it, the more people start to crowd the finish line.




A loud applause erupts from the final checkpoint area hidden from view of the finish line. The final group of spectators comes around the corners to witness the spectacular finish. There, in the distance the first runner is in sight, barreling towards the finish. The drumming starts up again, and gets louder and faster, on a sunny Saturday in Lithia Park.