Mercer Island High School cross country runners, from left, Ryan Koopman, Kai Zettel and Owen Powell lead the way. Photo courtesy of Aaron Koopman

Mercer Island High School cross country runners, from left, Ryan Koopman, Kai Zettel and Owen Powell lead the way. Photo courtesy of Aaron Koopman

Islander boys cross country squad leads the 3A KingCo pack

They have a solid chance at making state, coach says.

Flick the switch, and he’s off and running.

Ryan Koopman experiences an electric feeling whenever he steps up to the starting line of a cross country race.

“You can feel it in your stomach. You can feel it in your feet. You’re surrounded by fast people. I think I run my best when I’m chasing someone,” said the Mercer Island High School (MIHS) senior, who leads the boys team with a blazing mark of 16 minutes, 18 seconds in 5K races. That time places Koopman in the top 10 in school history.

The Islander boys currently stand at the top of the 3A KingCo pack, have notched high placement in big 3A-4A invites and have a solid chance at qualifying for state, according to coach Susan Empey. The team tallied a rare perfect score of 15 in a recent victory over Bellevue.

Joining Koopman in putting MIHS on a successful course this season are fellow seniors Kai Zettel, Luke Sandmaier and Alex Levin, juniors Brooks Enge and Carson Schiller, sophomore Clark Koopman and freshman Owen Powell.

Ryan has already bested his top time last year by 47 seconds and always has an eye on grabbing a PR each race.

“Over the summer, we really stepped up the training. It also helped last year that the track and cross country seasons were so close because there wasn’t any time for me to not be training,” Ryan said.

Zettel follows Koopman with a mark of 16:35 and is enjoying the full practices and fall schedule, which includes bigger meets this season. Last season, cross country teams competed in the spring with truncated COVID-19-restricted schedules.

The runner said his MIHS career has worked out pretty well ever since his mom signed him up to compete as a freshman. It was a stellar start for Zettel as the Islanders qualified for state that year.

Zettel is especially drawn to the MIHS cross country family atmosphere. “This whole big group, we all get along (which) is nice,” he said.

Sandmaier is next on the Islanders’ top-time docket with a mark of 16:49 and said the support from his teammates is a key aspect of notching success.

“I just think our team works great together. We work on pack running during workouts, so it converts pretty well for races,” said Sandmaier, adding that while running may not seem fun to some people, he thrives on the environment of fitness and socialization.

Powell has already made his mark on the MIHS program by grabbing the school’s freshmen record of 16:51. He’s been running since the fifth grade and follows in the footsteps of his parents, Maurica and Andy, who are deeply involved in the University of Washington cross country and track and field programs as director and head coach, respectively.

Owen, who gets a little nervous and excited before each race, said the mileage has doubled since his middle school running days and he enjoys being challenged by seniors Koopman, Sandmaier and Zettel.

“I came into the season with a goal of trying to make varsity. I’m glad I was able to do that. I tried to get the school record for the freshmen,” said Owen, noting that state could be on the horizon for himself and the Islanders if they stay healthy and run faster.

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