KEENE — The Keene Chargers made history at the Class 3A Region III cross country meet on Oct. 23 as they became the first boys team in school history to qualify for state in any sport.

Keene finished second in the team standings with a score of 106 at regionals to advance to the state championships. Keene Coach Jason Hill said reaching the state meet and becoming the first boys team to qualify for state was the Chargers’ goal from the first day of practice.

“I’m very pleased with what we did,” Hill said. “That’s the goal we had at the first of the year. We knew we had a pretty good team coming in. We had a lot of young guys but a lot of talented guys. We knew we had a chance to get to the state meet. The guys had to buy into it and put the work in. It was a great experience. 

“This is the first time Keene’s ever had a boys team qualify for the state meet. We’ve had girls cross country and girls golf teams make it to state, but this is the first time we’ve had a boys team qualify for the state meet so it’s big. That was one of our goals was to make history by being the first boys team to qualify for state. The guys put the work in and were dedicated to it.”

Hill said it’s rewarding to see a group of student-athletes reach such a lofty goal that they’ve strived for all season.

“They’re excited about it,” Hill said. “We wanted to win the region but we fell a bit short of that. But they’re just so excited about it. From my end, it’s awesome to see kids set goals and put their mind to doing something and then follow through and accomplish it. I’m not sure if they even realize what they’ve done to be that first elite group to advance to that level.”

The Chargers were led by sophomore Roberto Marquez, who finished fourth at regionals with a time of 17:41. Keene’s next three finishers were all freshmen: Alexis Garcia finished 10th at 18:06, Cooper Bryant placed 20th at 18:21.9 and John Estrada came in 41st at 19:05.7.

Keene was the youngest team at the regional meet and the Chargers will again be one of the youngest, if not the youngest, at state.

“We’re definitely the youngest team out of the region this year,” Hill said. “There were only two freshmen in the top 20 and they were both our kids. There was only one sophomore in the top 10, and he was our kid.”

Not only was it a major breakthrough to be the first Keene boys athletic program to qualify for state, but after years of dominating at the district level, Keene finally got over the hump.

In Hill’s 19 years with Keene, the Chargers have won 14 cross country district titles but couldn’t advance beyond regionals as a team. With winning district already a yearly set goal, now Hill said they’ll consider qualifying for state to be a yearly aspiration as well.

“We come in every year and we talk as a team, and one of our goals is to win district,” Hill said. “So now when we start running and training, it’s going to be a staple for us to reach state every year, too. Some schools have that dominant program built that other kids want to be a part of and it strengthens your program. Now it’s going to be a goal every year is win district and get to the state meet. This will help build our tradition.”

The Chargers have been building towards this moment throughout the season, with multiple first-place team finishes.

“The first meet we went to this year, we didn’t win — it was very competitive,” Hill said. “But from then on, we won like five or six meets in a row. We were at a level where we knew we were pretty good. From the get-go we won a lot of meets. That’s why expectations were set high. They performed week in and week out. 

“I carry 12 guys on my varsity and you can only run seven. So it made practices real competitive. If you missed practice or had a bad week, there was a possibility of losing your spot. So that helped us as well.”

While the Chargers made it to state as a team, the Lady Chargers will also be represented by senior Hazel Marquez, who finished 18th at regionals to qualify for state.

“Speaking for Coach Lisa Lee, what’s neat about Hazel is she’s gotten better every year,” Hill said. “That’s what impressive about her. She’s worked hard and committed herself. Her goal was to get to the state meet. She wanted to carry on the tradition of Marquez’s getting to the state meet. Her attitude and commitment paid off for her. She barely missed it three straight years in track and cross country but she kept working. To have that desire to come back and fulfill her goal, that’s a neat experience. Coach Lee is very proud of her for that.”

Hazel Marquez and Roberto Marquez continued the strong tradition of the Marquez family being outstanding long-distance runners. In 2014, their older sister Pamela Marquez signed with Tarleton State University for long-distance running after she qualified for the state meet all four years of high school.

“All three of the Marquez siblings here have all qualified for state at some point,” Hill said. “To be represented by such great kids like them makes Keene ISD and Keene athletics proud. They have great attitudes, they’re very respectful, and very committed academically. We’re proud as a school district to be represented by such great people. It’s a great experience for their mom and dad to have two kids represented at the state level in the same year.”

The young Chargers will certainly be challenged at state, and Hill said he’s mostly looking for his team to put forth their best effort. And since the team is comprised of underclassmen, he also wants them to soak up every moment to possibly use that experience down the road.

“On our end, we’ve just talked about getting better,” Hill said. “It’s a very competitive field. We’re going in with the goal of us competing and getting better throughout the week to try to run our fastest times. The big thing for our kids is getting experience. I’m taking two sophomores and the rest are freshmen. 

“We won’t have our full team because it’s on a Saturday. The regional meet was on a Monday so I was able to take a full team but I don’t have my full team going this week. But I do have my top three kids. So the big thing is compete hard and get some experience. No matter what, next year we’ll come back and have the same goals.”

The Class 3A cross country state championships are scheduled for 1:30 p.m. for the girls and 2 p.m. for the boys Saturday at Old Settlers Park in Round Rock.

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