By BRETT MARSHALL
Greeley County cross country coach Greg Cook readily admits he can understand if people think he waves a magic wand each year late in the fall.
He can also understand if they think he goes shopping and finds the Eveready Bunny with replacement batteries for his cross country teams.
So when the Class 1A girls state meet crossed the finish line on Saturday at Wamego Country, nobody was shocked, not even Cook, when his Lady Jackrabbits came away with another state championship by finishing ahead of chief rival, Macksville, with 40 points to 49.
"I can't really explain it, to be honest," Cook said Sunday in a telephone interview. "The five girls I had just did what they needed to do."
Indeed, the state title was the second straight for the Runnin' Lady Rabbits. They have now won six of the last eight small class school titles. The others came in 2006, 2008 through 2010 and a year ago. In the other two years since Classes 2-1A split in 2004, the Greeley County girls have placed third twice and second once.
"This one might have been a little surprising, but after regionals, I had an idea that if we ran well, we'd certainly be in the hunt for the team," Cook said.
Senior Kelli Holthaus led the way for Cook's squad with a fifth-place individual finish in a time of 17:02.05 for the 4-kilometer race.
"She's been the steady one at state for us the past two years," Cook said. "She had some up and down meets during this season, but she really came through in this one."
Her sophomore sister, Kashli, placed 13th to earn a second individual medal for the runners, while freshman Irelyn Elder and sophomore Brooke Wineinger rounded out the four scoring runners with solid 27th- and 28th-place finishes (18:40.12 and 18:40.63).
It seems as though each year, when he's had graduated seniors move on, Cook has been able to re-load with one or two freshmen.
"We've been fortunate to have a good bunch of young runners come along most years," Cook said. "All of us coaches rely on freshmen at the smaller schools. We know when we get to the big dance, regardless of sport, if the freshmen do well, you're going to be alright."
The girls' title soothed the fact that Cook was unable to bring a boys team to the state for the first time. He didn't have enough out for the team at the start of the season when two members of that squad didn't come out. Then when it came time for the state week, one player who had qualified at the regional quit the team after missing a mandatory practice on Tuesday prior to the Saturday state race.
"Certainly it felt weird not to have the boys' team there," Cook said. "It's always disappointing when you see young people with the opportunity to succeed and be part of a winning program who don't take advantage of those opportunities."
So his lone runner for the boys at state — senior Martin Veleta — earned an individual medal with a 14th place finish, being timed in 18:42.52, his best race of the season, Cook said.
Dighton's Payden Shapland had a top 20 finish for the Lady Hornets in the 1A girls division, taking 10th in 17:33.17.
At Wamego, it was Rebeca Avelar of Stanton County who produced the highest individual finish for area schools as the Lady Trojan freshman finished third with a time of 16:13.68. That helped her team to a fifth-place finish with 142 points.
On the boys' side in Class 2A, the surprising Wichita County Indians garnered a third-place team trophy by scoring 117 points. Senior Joshua Mehl was the top finisher for the Indians by earning an individual medal in 15th place at 17:50.93. Elkhart's Israel Barco (17:18.80) was fourth, and his teammate Cesar Aguirre was 12th in 17:45.14. South Gray's Luke Skinner placed 16th with a time of 17:51.84.
In Class 4A races, Ulysses' Chisholm Branscum (16:30.22) and Hugoton's Katy Heger (16:33.11) were top-20 finishers and captured individual medals. The Hugoton girls placed ninth in the team race with 219 points.
On the boys' side, Hugoton's Isaac Castro earned a ninth-place finish and a medal with a time of 17:16.66 over the 5-kilometer race. His older brother, Luis, just missed a top 20 medal in 21st with a time of 17:50.64. The Eagles' boys were eighth in the team chase with 168 points.
At Lawrence's Rim Rock Farm, Cimarron junior Kari Blattner took 15th in Class 3A girls competition, thus earning an individual medal.
"It was a good race, a good day to race," said the Lady Bluejays' top runner. "I felt strong throughout the race, got off to a good start and just tried to stay up with the lead pack most of the race."
The effort provided a boost to her confidence as she looks ahead to her senior season.
"I'm excited about running again next year," Blattner said.