New Coach, New Team, Fresh Start: Raft River Girl's XC Chasing Big Dreams

Updated: Nov 14, 2020

Trojans Looking for First-Ever State XC Team Title in School History.

(L-R) Raft River's Varsity Seven: Livy Smith, Libby Boden, Jennie Gilbert, Kaybree Christensen, Karlee Christensen, Heidi Harper, Allie Black. Photo courtesy of Brooke Christensen.

Raft River, ID - It hasn't been the easiest of journeys for the Raft River girls' cross country team.

From not having a team since 1999 and to have the program taken away due to lack of participants, cross country has been out of the picture for a long time.

2020 has been a year of chaos for everyone, but the Trojans cross country program's rebirth has brought new meaning in overcoming adversity and taking on the "Underdog" role.

This is their story.

Where is Raft River?

Just West of Interstate-84 and right on the southern border of Idaho and Utah is the small town of Malta, Idaho, named after the Mediterranean island with a population of 205 people.

In the heart of the town is Raft River High School, a small 1A classified school in the Idaho High School Activities Association with an enrollment of 149 students.

During the fall sports season, football has established itself as the dominant program for the Trojan's athletic programs and has had quite the history in winning five state championships, with their recent being in 2016.

Along with football, volleyball is the only other sport that students can participate in until this school year.

If there has been one sport in particular that has been non-existent in Raft River athletics' history, it's cross country.

It's been non-existent to a point where the school hasn't formed a team since the 1999 school year for both boys and girls.

According to Raft River Athletic Director Randy Spaeth, it's been non-existent to a point where only one girl participated in 2001 in the entire program, and the school was forced to cut the program due to budgets.

"At that point, we didn't have any participation to keep funding a coach," said Spaeth on the disbandment of the cross country teams.

"1999 was the last full team we had with five girls running, and it's not clear if that team made it to state or not. In 2000 our numbers dropped to two boys and two girls, and of course, the next season we had the one girl."

Since 1997 when he first started working for the school, Spaeth, in his eighth year as Athletic Director, has been around plenty of successful teams, including a track and field program that has won a total of 16 state team titles between the boys and girls programs.

Those state championship track teams didn't have any distance runners competing for them in years past, but a strong core of sprinters and throwers.

Karlee and Kaybree Christensen

Two of those state titles have been recently won by the girl's team in 2018 and 2019 with Spaeth as the head coach. Part of their success the last two seasons weren't with those typical athletes they had; it was a pair of twin sisters who took on the distance running roles.

Karlee and Kaybree Christensen joined the track team during their freshman year in 2018 and were incredibly successful in their first year running and jumping too, as they both competed at the state meet.

Not only were they able to compete at state, but both Christensen's also performed well, scoring numerous points en route to their team championship with Karlee placing fourth in 1,600-meter, third in the 3,200-meter, and fifth in high-jump, and Kaybree placing fifth in the 800-meter, second in the 3,200, and winning the 1,600.

Before taking on track their freshman year, Karlee and Kaybree played on the volleyball team and played volleyball their entire life. Because of their success as runners, Spaeth felt running cross-country would be the more successful path in getting faster and stronger for track.

'They were very motivated and very driven student-athletes," said Spaeth. "We figured it was better served for them to run cross country because they were becoming distance runners."

The following fall after the track season, the Christensen's began running cross country for Raft River and were the only two runners on the high school's team, more than they had when they cut the entire program 17 years ago.

The school was able to pay entry fees for meets and get hotels for them if necessary, but with no coach and no school transportation to help provide for the girls because they were the only two running, the next best adults to help the Christensen's out in their first season were their parents, Brooke and Mike Christensen.

Like her daughters, Brooke Christensen also grew up playing volleyball, and getting involved with cross country in the girl's sophomore year was a whole new world she was entering.

"Their freshman year they ran so well in track, we all thought why not give cross country a try," said Brooke. "But I don't have a lot of training with running. I was running for about six years in my thirties, and that is the extent of my knowledge with running."

It may have been a new experience for all the Christensen's, but Karlee and Kaybree made it look like they were as about as experienced runners you could have on a team in their first season.

Karlee (L) and Kaybree (R) Christensen finished first and second at the 2018 ISHAA 1A State Cross Country Championships. Photo courtesy of Brooke Christensen.

Kaybree won six races in her first year, including the 1A state title in a personal 5k best time of 18:28.88, and Karlee was second at numerous meets, including the state meet where she ran 18:55.6.

Of course, this is quite the accomplishment for these two in their first year, but Brooke didn't realize how big of a deal this was when both of her daughters are on the cusp of becoming some of the best runners to go through the state of Idaho.

"When my twins started, we had huge support from other coaches and athletes," said Brooke. "People would see us at meets and could tell we had no idea what we were doing, so they would come over and help us out."

In their second season, Kaybree wasn't able to repeat as state champion but finished as the runner-up behind the Ambrose School's Britta Holmberg. Karlee was third in that race behind her sister.

In just two short years, the Christensen's became two of the top runners in the state. As the only two runners on the team, the training piece wasn't a challenge because they were both the only distance runners in the school.

"We were used to running on our own," said Karlee. "We didn't have girls running distance in track, so it felt normal for us."

But both girls wanted the program to go further. They wanted to form a team for their senior season to build up a new culture at Raft River.

Raft River XC is Back

Along with the twins, there is a younger sibling down at the middle school who has been involved in running. Because of her involvement with running, other kids have decided to show some interest in trying out cross country at the beginning of the summer, giving the Athletic Director a legit reason to bring back the school's program.

Brooke and Mike Christensen have been very supportive of their daughters the last two years and have taken on the roles as coaches in 2020. Photo courtesy of Brooke Christensen.

"I was talking with a couple of people and thought why not open this up," said Spaeth. "Because of the number of kids we have at both the junior high and high school, we might be able to combine them and qualify for getting a coach hired. Once we started that process, more and more kids got interested."

The school got the approval from the central office in town, and Raft River cross country was back. The only thing missing to complete everything was a head coach.

With Karlee and Kaybree's parents' involvement in the last two years, Spaeth offered up the coaching position to them and Brooke was willing to take the head coaching position.

"Even with Karlee and Kaybree graduating this year, Brooke and Mike have another daughter at the middle school, and they are going to be around for a while, so it seemed like they were the perfect fit," said Spaeth.

Despite the lack of experience in coaching, the Christensen's have some knowledge about cross country, specifically on Mike's side of the family since he has a brother who has kids that run for another school 50 minutes west of them at Valley High School.

"They have a lot of outside resources to help them out," said Spaeth. "Brooke has great tangibles to be a good coach, and Mike has great connections with Valley that they have been a real help to also starting this program back up."

Along with some knowledge, Spaeth felt the two work well together in the big picture.

A New Era Begins

With a new program formed, the word got out to many kids at the school, and it drew plenty of attention from those who were not partaking in sports at the time.

Three students in Libby Bolden, Livy Smith, and Jennie Gilbert entered their sophomore year without participating in a fall sport. This year, two other students began high school in Allie Black and Heidi Harper, not partaking in any current sports.

However, during the wintertime, they are all involved with basketball, and what better way to get in shape for basketball than to run cross country.

"We want to get stronger as athletes for basketball, so this was perfect for us three to get in shape," said Bolden.

But it was not an easy adjustment for all of them.

"After the first day of practice, we were all very sore," said Jennie Gilbert. "We thought it was going to be easy running three miles and then being done."

In the first meet of the season, Raft River competed at the Terry Jones Invite, where they placed fourth as a team scoring 104 points behind Preston, who was seventh at the 4A meet last year, and Bear Lake, who was second at the 2A meet last year.

Karlee and Kaybree finished in the top 10, as usual, while four of the other girls, excluding Black, placed in the middle of the pack in their very first race.

The following week was their first top-notched invite at the Tiger/Griz Invite in Idaho Falls, and they had all seven runners participating. They would face off against Bear Lake again and other state veteran programs like Sugar-Salem and Soda Springs.

Karlee went onto win the individual title in the Varsity B race, and Kaybree was third. Just a week after running in their first races, Boden, Smith, Harper, and Gilbert came away with new personal best times.

Because they all ran at their best that day, this led Raft River to place third overall as a team defeating Bear Lake after having lost to them the week prior.

"I was really surprised when we got the results back," said Brooke. "I knew the girls we had were really athletic, but I didn't think we were able to beat a team like Bear Lake. That's a phenomenal team."

Not to mention Raft River trailed in the team standings by a small number of points to two 2019 state champion teams in Sugar-Salem (3A) and Soda Springs (2A).

Realizing the Potential

Five days after placing third at the Tiger/Grizz Invite, Raft River traveled to the Magic Mountain Invite, where they would be facing up against the defending 1A state champions, the Oakley Hornets.

Easily the biggest race early on in the season, this was Raft River's time to prove what they were capable of.

"Going into this meet, we thought we had a shot of giving Oakley a run for their money," said Brooke. "But they're a really good team with experienced runners, so I didn't come into this meet with any expectations for the girls and told them to just go out and run."

Little did she know after telling them just to run, this would be the best race of the season, if not the program's best performance in quite some time.

With five girls placing in the top 15, Raft River not only won the team title scoring 30 points, but they defeated the defending 1A champion Hornets by 38 points.

Karlee and Kaybree went second and third, but Black, Boden, and Smith brought their best efforts that day to secure the team title. More so, Smith beat Oakley's second runner as her team's fifth runner, which was even more impressive.

"I was very surprised, again," said Brooke. "To see them win, we've never been that excited before."