By BRETT MARSHALL

bmarshall@gctelegram.com

MONTEZUMA Webster's Dictionary defines "redemption" as the act of changing something for the better.

No word better describes the performance Thursday afternoon of two seniors Heber Jimenez of Hugoton and Kayla Thomas of South Gray as they produced a pair of victories in the South Gray Cross Country Invitational. It marked the opening meet of the season for the two southwest Kansas area standouts.

"It felt very good out there," Thomas said. "I was worried after the state track meet and didn't know if I was just getting too old for these distance races."

All Thomas did in her debut run of her senior year was a winning time of 17:52.10 for the 4-kilometer race (2.4 miles).

Thomas said her lackluster performance last May at the Class 1A state track meet in Wichita (9th and 10th place finishes in the 1,600 and 800-meter runs) was what had concerned her the most.

"I was just afraid that I wouldn't have the same ability to run good times," Thomas said. "I'm actually quite pleased because it shows me that I can still do well. What I did at state was just awful and I really want to have a good senior year."

The Hugoton girls, with fifth and sixth place finishes from Marine Viera (18:13) and Aubrey Hamilin (18:40), captured the girls team title with 41 points to runner-up Stanton County's 59.

Jimenez' winning effort propelled the Eagles to the boys team title as well with his season-opening time of 17:52 over the 3.1 mile layout. Jimenez, too, is seeking to establish himself as one of the premier distance runners in southwest Kansas and his win Thursday puts him good position. The only tarnish to the medal might be the fact Stanton County's Eric Ruth was not entered because he had been battling the flu and coach Mike Horton held him out of the season opener.

"It felt pretty good today even though it was hot," Jimenez said. "The legs didn't get tired until that last loop."

Jimenez had taken the lead from Southwestern Heights' Enrique Sanchez at about the 1.5 mile mark when he felt strong.

"I felt good at that point in the race and was just able to get a big enough lead to hold it," Jimenez said of his 27-second victory margin over the Mustangs' top runner. "My goal is to make it to state and do better than I did last year (34th in Class 4A). I would have liked to have Eric (Ruth) running, but I will see him a lot this season. I'm looking forward to it because it's great to have good runners to compete against."

Thomas said the momentum gained from Thursday's victory will help as the season moves along.

"I'd like to do better than I did at state (5th), so I've been running a lot with the guys," she said. "They push me and that helps a lot."

Thomas said at about the mile marker was when she began to pull away for what would become an 18-second victory over Janelyn Reimer of Cimarron (18:10). "I really didn't hit a wall today, it was a little slower in the middle, but I think I had a good strong finish."