Who is this kid?

That’s what popped into Daniel Morales’ mind the first time he saw Vance Voetberg during their freshmen season of track at Centralia High School.

Morales grew up in Centralia, but lived in California as an eighth grader before moving back to Lewis County the following year. Before he left he was, arguably, the top long distance runner in his class.

Upon return, that title was now bestowed onto Voetberg.

“Ever since our freshman year we’ve been rivals in track. I hate to admit it,” a grinning Morales said about the friendly inner-squad competition between the two, “but he’s always been better than me.”

Centralia High School Cross Country
Daniel Morales has been a member of the Tigers’ cross country team for four years and is looking to make a return trip to the state meet this season. Photo credit: Grant Clark

The next year, Morales was pleased to find out Voetberg had no intentions of joining him on the cross country team, instead opting to play tennis.

“I actually liked that a lot,” Morales said. “You go and have tennis, I’ll take cross country.”

This remained the scenario until the start of their senior season this year when Voetberg elected to leave the courts and trade in his racquet for some running shoes and join Morales on the cross country team.

For three years Morales enjoyed the separation between the two athletes. Now, he’s embracing the fact the Tigers have another gifted runner on their squad, one that should push Morales to new heights.

“(Vance) is an excellent runner. He has confidence in what he does,” Morales said. “I think seeing him in front of me (at practices) gives me that push. The last two years when I practiced I would just be running solo. We would come to races and it was always difficult because I didn’t have someone pushing me leading up to it. Now I do, and it is nice having someone push you.”

Centralia High School Cross Country
Daniel Morales (right) and Giovanni Beegen of Black Hills (left) dig in down the stretch during an 2A Evergreen Conference meet. Photo credit: Grant Clark

Morales was the only member of the Centralia boys cross country team to qualify for the Class 2A state meet in 2016. He doesn’t expect to be alone this season.

It is an interesting dynamic for Centralia’s top two cross country runners this season – one is a four-year veteran of the sport, while the other is brand new. Their coach expects big things from both of them in 2017.

“I think Vance knows he can be a state contender this year. He’s really self-motivated and focused,” Centralia coach Steve Creel said. “He wants to do well this season, and has all the tools to do that.”

During his first ever cross country race, Voetberg took first in the Tigers’ meet against Tumwater, covering the 3.1 mile distance in 18 minutes, 41.83 seconds – nearly 23 seconds faster than the next runner.

It was about as solid a debut as you could have asked for.

Centralia High School Cross Country
Centralia senior Daniel Morales (left) leads his teammates during a cross country meet against Black Hills and Aberdeen. Photo credit: Grant Clark

In the very next meet, Morales finished fourth against Aberdeen and Black Hills, covering the distance in 18:12 – a seasonal best – showing the Tigers feature quite the 1-2 punch this season.

“(Daniel’s) a great leader for the team. He’s very social and the kids follow his lead,” Creel said. “He gained a lot of confidence last year. He wasn’t sure he could make it to the next level, but he did. He made it to state and now he’s running with a lot of confidence.”

Confidence which began to soar following a home meet against Rochester last year.

“Our home course is different from most. We have a lot of asphalt and there’s just slower times on our course,” Morales said. “Our times are always a minute to a minute and half slower than other courses. I put up an 18:26. On any other course that’s like a 17:20. When that happened I realized if I ran that pace at the district meet I’d have a solid time.”

Morales did just that at the 2016 District 4 championships, stopping the clock in a personal best 17:04. He now plans to lower that time even more.

Centralia High School Cross Country
Morales set a PR at last year’s District 4 Championships, covering the distance in 17:04. His goal this year is set at 16:30. Photo credit: Grant Clark

“Mainly this whole sport is if you have the right mindset for it,” said Morales, who ran 20-25 miles per week during the summer months to prepare for the season. “Placing high at state to me would be cool, but I just want to hit 16:30. That’s my ultimate goal this year.”

It’s a feat he believes his newest teammate will help him achieve.

Should both Morales and Voetberg advance to the state meet at season’s end it would make the first time the Tigers had multiple runners at state since 2009.

“We talk a little bit when we run, mostly about what we want our pace to be,” Morales said, “but overall we’re just running. During every race, we don’t say it, but it’s always a mental race between us. We will start off our first mile and it’s always easy and comfortable. As the run progresses we just keep picking it up. I think it’s great for both of us. We’re out there pushing each other.”

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