In 2011 the Jackson boys beat runner-up Star Valley for the Broncs’ second state title in as many years. But, until Saturday, Jackson hadn’t won a state title since then, and Star Valley hadn’t lost one.
On Saturday in Sheridan, eight days after the Braves edged the Broncs by less than one second at the 3A West regional, Jackson put Star Valley’s six-year winning streak to rest.
Three All-State runners led the Broncs on Saturday, but it was the performance of Jackson’s fourth and fifth runners that helped it capture its fifth state title. Jackson beat Star Valley by 12 points because freshman Mason Wheeler (16:50) and junior Kade Hatten (17:26) finished 11th and 16th, respectively, beating the Braves’ fourth and fifth runners by 13 points.
Star Valley led by one point after Jackson posted a runner-up result from senior Mac Staryk (16:00), a third-place finish from senior Wyatt Sullivan (16:06) and a 10th-place effort from sophomore Ben Williams (16:42). Star Valley had the first-, fourth- and ninth-place runners.
Jackson freshman Mason Wheeler (16:50) finished 11th to give Jackson the lead over the Braves. The next Brave crossed the finish line in 15th and right behind him was Jackson’s Kade Hatten (17:26) in 16th to secure the Broncs’ first state title since 2011.
Jackson coach Jeff Brazil said he was worried about an exhausted Wheeler’s ability to finish strong. But both the freshman and the junior, Hatten, put together championship-level kicks to end the Braves’ chances for a seventh straight title.
“As a freshman, you keep holding your breath ... will he hold on?” Brazil said of Wheeler’s final mile. “His body wanted to give up three times in the last mile and each time he responded. He is an amazing competitor. His race really changed the dynamics of the race.
“I watched Kade catch at least four runners in the last 400,” Brazil said. “He is so strong and now starting to understand really how good he is. He was the key on this day.”
Jackson spent 2016 and 2017 in 4A watching from afar as Star Valley continued to reign over 3A in dominant fashion. The Braves won the 2106 and 2017 3A state titles by a combined total of 108 points in years that each one of Star Valley’s five point scorers finished in the top seven.
Staryk and Sullivan both finished in the top 10 at the 2015 3A meet as freshmen. They kicked off what are now storied careers with All-State results at their first state meet. Despite the team’s two youngest runners posting top-10 results, Jackson placed third as a team, 33 points behind champion Star Valley.
Sullivan and Staryk — the only Jackson runners to ever break 16 minutes — said that Star Valley has been in the team’s crosshairs for the entirety of their high school running careers. The Braves have been so good that Jackson has even tried to learn from its rivals, Sullivan said.
“A lot of times we’ve wondered as a team and talked about as a team how Star Valley trains and what our differences are in training,” he said. “They always win, and we’re always curious how they peak so well at the state meet. They always manage to run their best race at the state meet.
“This year most of our guys, if not all of them, were finally able to peak for state.”
Jackson and Star Valley battled to a tie at the Oct. 12 regional leading up to state. The Braves wound up with the conference title after winning a tiebreaker that came down to the results of each team’s sixth runner. Star Valley’s sixth runner beat Jackson’s by 0.78 seconds in the closest cross-country race Jackson coach Jeff Brazil said he’d seen in more than 20 years of coaching.
Staryk said he was unsure of his team’s chances to finally topple Star Valley on the sport’s biggest stage until it actually happened.
“I didn’t really think we were gonna do it, but I’m so happy about it,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a super-close race. Regionals was insanely close. I knew our fourth and fifth runners had to run super-well in order to beat them.”
Staryk and Sullivan gave the Broncs the superstar talent required to compete with the Braves, but the competition between the two teammates was more intense than even Star Valley could provide.
“Mac and I have spent the last four years running with each other on very similar paths,” Sullivan said. “We’ve both been injured; we’ve both gone through the same struggles and the same victories. It’s a competitive relationship, and we both push each other in workouts and races. We both want to beat each other but in a very friendly way.”
The two didn’t have much room for error Saturday. They had to be their dominant selves for Jackson to have any chance against a Star Valley team that returned three All-State athletes off its 2017 championship team.
Three years after racing in the only 3A state meet of their careers, the two seniors lined up against Star Valley at the state meet for just the second time. Opportunities against their rivals on this kind of stage have been more rare than they would have liked. The Jackson duo made the most of their shot and will leave a legacy with more of an impact than any individual accomplishment.
“There was quite a bit of pressure,” Staryk said. “We wanted to end our high school career on a high note, and this is the best way to do it.”