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Ashland's EJ Holland shooting for history

Here’s all you need to know about EJ Holland.

The Ashland High distance standout is aiming to break a record held by Galen Rupp at the cross country state championships on Saturday at Lane Community College in Eugene.

Here’s what you need to know about Rupp: He is the second-best runner Oregon has produced, and some have dared to wonder if he doesn’t belong at the top, ahead of, gasp, Steve Prefontaine.

Is it premature, even foolhardy, to mention Holland in the same breath as Rupp, who broke numerous American high school records and went on to compete in three Olympics, medaling twice? Perhaps, at least for now.

That might change in a day or so.

As a junior at Central Catholic in 2002, Rupp won the 5,000-meter Class 6A state meet in 14 minutes, 56 seconds. It’s the fastest a junior has gone on the current course.

Holland, also a junior, has eclipsed 15 minutes three times this season, including once at Lane CC over a course only slightly different than the one he’ll tour on Saturday in the Class 5A race.

He is not shying away from the challenge.

“It’s the one I want,” he says of Rupp’s junior-class record. “I think I can get it, too. I’ve had good races progressing up to it. On the right day and with the right conditions, I think I’ll be able to hit it.”

Holland served notice early that this could be a special season.

In Ashland’s second meet on Sept. 15, he won the Northwest Classic at Lane CC in 14:59.2.

Two weeks later, he shattered the State of Jefferson meet record in 15:14.1.

On Oct. 13, he set a personal best in winning the Grizzlies’ biggest regular-season meet, running 14:53.2 at the Warner Pacific Classic.

He broke 15 minutes again, by one second, at the Midwestern League district meet last week in North Bend.

Ashland coach Hans Voskes was aware of Holland when the youngster competed in middle school. The coach tried not to pay too much attention — “I kept an eye on him out of the corner of my eye,” he says — choosing instead to focus on the kids under his watch at the time.

Now, he’s had an up-close look for a couple years.

“He’s beyond what I thought, he really is,” says Voskes. “He’s from a different planet.”

Holland’s training, like many others’, was compromised in the summer and early fall because of wildfire smoke. So his sub-15 in mid-September at Lane CC was both surprising and a portend of what might come.

At Lane CC, the final 300 meters or so is on the school track, and a scoreboard with the race time comes into view.

“I knew I was in shape to go under 15,” says Holland, noting that he’d met benchmarks throughout the summer. “I was still surprised to come around the turn and see the 14s on the clock. It’s something I’d obviously never seen before. It was a really good feeling to come across the line under 15.”

Can he do it again?

The difference in the course from then to now is slight, says Holland. At the Northwest Classic, runners went around ponds twice, rather than the one time at state. There’s also a sharp 180-degree turn near the end that requires competitors to briefly slow down.

As to which course is faster, Holland’s best frame of reference comes from his freshman year. He was eight seconds faster on the state course that year.

“Obviously, it means pretty good things leading up to state,” he says. “If I can shave eight seconds off what I did at Northwest, it gets me under the mark I want to have.”

His PR at Warner Pacific came on a deceptively difficult course because of direction swings and up-and-down stages that sapped runners of momentum.

Holland’s ability to put up consistent times stems from his training, says Voskes. He doesn’t ramp up his fitness for big meets, then slack off afterward. He trains year-round, in part because he enjoys it.

“It’s not an ordeal,” says Voskes. “He enjoys going out for a run.”

It’s led to some acclaim. Dyestat.com ranks Holland eighth nationally among high school boy runners, and he’s the No. 3 junior.

In Oregon, he has the best time, regardless of classification, by 15 seconds.

In the 5A ranks, Parkrose’s Ahmed Ibrahim is second with a best of 15:17.2. Next is Ashland’s Arlo Davis (15:24.1) and Crater’s Jantz Tostenson (15:33.0).

“What sets him apart,” Voskes says of Holland, “is his confidence. I don’t think he spends too much time thinking about what a person could potentially run. He knows what he can do.”

Holland rarely deviates from a tried-and-true formula of, go out fast, then get faster.

“At the mile mark,” says Voskes, “he just knows, ‘I’m moving now,’ and out he goes. I think he would do that against anybody. He’s just a very confident young man who knows what his talent is. And we haven’t reached his ceiling yet.”

No one has stayed with him past a mile or so this season, so Holland is used to running by himself.

“In some ways it’s nice,” he says. “I’ll most likely have to do it at state. There are good guys; they’re not pushovers at all. There will be a whole pack behind me chasing me. I’ll be using the experience I do have running alone to my advantage.”

He will be seeking his third state championship and first in cross country. Last spring, Holland won the 3,000- and 1,500-meter track championships.

In the 3,000, his time of 8:26.44 broke by more than two seconds the meet record set by Summit’s Matthew Maton in 2013. It’s worth noting that, as a senior in 2014, Maton set the state course record 14:45.

Holland is on a couple state-meet lists of his own. His freshman time of 15:57 ranks third for that grade. His 15:19 of last year, in undoubtedly one of the best races in meet history, is tied for fifth for all classes.

A year ago, he and Crater senior Andy Monroe charged achingly to the finish, crashed over the line together and posted the same time. Monroe, who now runs for Stanford, was named the victor.

Holland has replayed that race in his head “about 100 times,” he says.

Voskes reminded him this week of it and warned him of losing focus.

“That’s what I did entering the track,” he recalls. “I let the gap get too big and wasn’t able to close it up by the finish. You have to stay focused. Anyone can make a move anytime. You can’t predict it, and you can’t let the rubber band break and lose contact with the person you’re racing.”

He has a picture of the finish on his wall. It’s a race he’ll always remember.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever have as crazy a photo finish as that,” he says.

If things go according to plan, it won’t happen on Saturday.

Reach Mail Tribune sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com

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