Epic season ahead for U.S. Junior girls?

2013 Dellinger XC Invitational finish

SPRINGFIELD, Ore. – Could the 2013-14 season be one of the best in history for U.S. high school girls’ middle distance and distance running?

Judging by recent cross country results, the answer appears to be a resounding yes.

Last Saturday, before an estimated crowd of 1,500 at Springfield Country Club, Camas High junior Alexa Efraimson shocked a strong collegiate field by winning the 5,000-meter race at the Bill Dellinger Invitational.

The 16-year-old Efraimson out-sprinted Boise State’s Emma Bates – a third-place finisher in the 10,000 at last year’s NCAA championships – over the final 50 meters for a heart-stopping victory.

Both runners were timed in 16 minutes, 35 seconds.

Efraimson’s performance is believed to be the fastest 5K ever run by a Washington girl in a cross country race.

It comes on the heels of Niwot High School (Colo.) senior Elise Cranny’s triumph against collegiate competition at the Rocky Mountain Shootout on Sept. 28 in Boulder, Colo.

Add record-setting Mary Cain (Bronxville, N.Y.) and Sarah Baxter (Simi Valley, Calif.) into the mix, and the table is set for a truly extraordinary year, one which culminates in the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships, July 22-27, at Hayward Field.

That meet is circled on Efraimson’s calendar.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “(The world juniors) are definitely on my radar. I’m focusing on cross country first, but on the track, obviously, that’s the one, probably the 1,500.”

Cain, of course, is the U.S. prep record-holder in the 1,500 at 4:04.62. She is followed on the current all-time list by former UO standout Jordan Hasay (4:14.50), Cranny (4:15.07) and Efraimson (4:16.00).

In Eugene, Efraimson first turned heads as a sophomore last March when she beat another talented field of collegians in the 1,500 meters at the Oregon Preview.

She won that race with a time of 4:19.54, besting the likes of ex-Oregon State standout Laura Carlyle, and a trio of Ducks, Laura Roesler, Sarah Penney and Megan Patrignelli.

Efraimson went on to sweep the 800 and 1,500 titles at the Washington 4A state championships before her first international competition – the 2013 IAAF World Youth Championships last July.

Competing in the 1,500 in Donetsk, Ukraine, she pushed the pace early, and battled the eventual top two finishers – Ethiopia’s Tigist Gashaw (4:14.25) and Dawit Seyaum (4:15.51) – all the way to the finish line.

Efraimson settled for the bronze medal at 4:16.07, just off her PR set at the Portland Track Festival. Her personal best in the 800 is 2:06.54.

Because of her extended track season, Efraimson was limited to base training until the past two weeks, which makes Saturday’s triumph at the Dellinger meet all the more remarkable.

Was she surprised by the victory?

“A little bit, yeah,” she said. “Especially in a college race, so many things can happen. I know some of these girls and I love them to death. I just wanted to have a good race and start out the season strong.”

Mission accomplished.

While she trains and competes with her Camas High teammates, Efraimson’s workouts are supplemented by Mike Hickey, who left Camas last summer to become head track and field and cross country coach at Clark College in Vancouver, Wash.

What was his view of Efraimson’s accomplishment?

“I think that might have been an even better performance than her world championship race,” Hickey said. “She is a natural 800/1,500 runner, so for her to go up to the 5K and run that well made for a very impressive day …

“It was a good maturing point. She looked relaxed, in the moment, and she responded to all the moves that the college girls were making. We talked about using this race to prepare for Nike Cross Nationals.”

That meet will be held Dec. 7 at Portland Meadows.

Efraimson, Baxter and Cranny are currently ranked 1-2-3 in the nation in high school girls cross country by Milesplit. Dyestat updates its top-30 rankings on Thursday, and either Baxter or Efraimson will be listed No. 1, with Cranny close behind.

It should be an unforgettable season.

“I think this is going to be one of the best years on record,” Hickey said. “I don’t know if there has ever been a year that’s going to be better than this. Cain is the favorite and everyone else will try to run with her. We’ll see what happens.

“All I know is that when you get a young lady like Alexa, who is this humble, and this kind, it makes it a lot easier. We’re blessed to be a part of her life.”