Higgins, Leavengood Set the Pace for Seahawks XC Teams

The Olympia Invitational Sept. 9 kicks off cross-country season at PHS with some of the best runners in the region — and they come from Peninsula High School.


The Peninsula Seahawks boys and girls cross-country teams returned to the trails last month, getting a head start on the fall sports season.

Both teams are looking to build off momentum gained last year.

“Every season we want to take a step forward,” said Tyler Nugent, PHS’s longtime cross-country, track and field coach. “That starts with all the work they put in over the summer so they can build up the strength to handle some of these hard workouts we’re doing.”

The girls return four of their five runners from last year’s team that took sixth place at the 3A Washington State Cross-Country Championships, seniors Cecily Albrecht and Lola Sweet, and juniors Hailey Howard and Elektra Higgins. Nugent expects the team, and all four girls, to place even better this year since each has run at the state level twice before.

Big things are expected from Higgins this season. She didn’t take distance running seriously until she got to high school and has seen consistent success through her first two years, finishing seventh at the state championships her freshman year and ninth last season. Her accomplishments landed her on the 2022 All-South Sound Conference first team. The incoming junior is targeting a top-five this season. Her personal best running the 5-kilometer (3.1 miles) race is 18:19 and she’s trying to trim that to 18 minutes flat this year. If that sounds tough, she already cut it by 19 seconds from the year before.

Higgins has gone through some health issues over the last six months, dealing with an iron deficiency during track season and starting this cross-country season with knee pain. She’s been wearing braces on both legs to stabilize her kneecaps. It didn’t seem to affect her over the summer when she placed second at the White Pass Cross Country Camp and Clinic. It’s the top camp in the state for long-distance runners, according to Nugent.

“Elektra is an incredible athlete and drives everyone around her to be better,” said her boys teammate and returning state qualifier Cooper Leavengood.

Leavengood himself finished last season on the All-SSC second team and is coming off a top-100 performance at the state championships. Not exactly the performance he was hoping for.

“I was blessed with an opportunity to go to state,” he said. “But I was also blessed with the opportunity to be humbled. Those are some amazing athletes.” Leavengood’s goal is to return to the state meet and place in the Top 20. But maybe even more ambitious, he wants to cut a minute off his personal best time of 16:59.

“He’s putting in the work at quite a higher level than he ever has before,” Nugent said. “If anyone could improve that much, it would be Cooper.”

To get there, Leavengood is increasing the mileage and intensity of his workouts and mixes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes. He also puts a lot of pressure on himself on the track.

“I race against a phantom of myself; my previous best (time) is the ghost runner right next to me,” he said.

Both Nugent and Leavengood mentioned they expect big things from senior Gavin Hendrickson. This is only Hendrickson’s second year as a distance runner and Nugent thinks he’ll be one of the team’s top three runners. The coach also called out sophomores Ben Johnson and Ben Caseley for making huge leaps in their off-season training. The boys haven’t qualified for state competition as a team for a few years, and Leavengood thinks they have the squad to pull it off this season.

Nugent, a 2001 graduate of PHS, is in his eighth year leading the school’s cross-country program, and 15th year total coaching the sport. Races this month include the Olympia Invitational (Sept. 9), Sehmel 4K (Sept. 14), Fort Steilacoom Invitational (Sept. 16), SK SPSL 5K (Sept. 22) and John Payne Invitational (Sept. 30).