By BRETT MARSHALL
On Thursday, the Garden City High School cross country teams will host the 2012 Western Athletic Conference championship at Buffalo Dunes Golf Course.
Junior varsity races for the girls and boys begin at 4 p.m. on the back nine of the Dunes, with the start and finish scheduled for the area just in front of the No. 10 tee. Varsity matches will follow with the girls and boys competition.
The Lady Buffs will likely be the favorite to defend the title they won in 2011 at Dodge City where they won with 21 points, easily outdistancing runner-up Great Bend's 45 points. Last year, it was a 1-2-3 finish by Chelsea Jackson, Alex Miller and Katy Doll that propelled the team to the championship, the first for coach Krista Linenberger in her 14 seasons associated with the program.
"I think the kids are both excited to be at home and running in front of what we hope will be a good home crowd," Linenberger said. "Having been a runner, I think there's always a little nervousness competing at home, too. It adds a little to the race, but yes, I think the kids are excited to have a chance to run at home."
While the teams practice occasionally out at the Dunes, they don't run there regularly, but recent trips and the course layout give Linenberger optimism for how the teams will perform on Thursday.
"We've been a lot stronger in the last part of the races this year than in the past," Linenberger said. "Buffalo Dunes is not an easy course. Now, it's not a Rim Rock (Lawrence, site of Class 6A state) or a Canon City (recent Colorado race), but the fact that the hill on No. 17 is in the final half of the girls and final one-third mile for the boys, well, it's just a great place to see how the runners perform."
Linenberger hesitated briefly when asked if her girls were the favorite entering Thursday's race, but admitted that if the girls run the way they have all fall, the results should take care of themselves.
"I think we like the position we're in, the girls have worked extremely hard, and they're looking forward to competing," Linenberger said. "The boys, I think, Dodge City would be favored coming in, but after that I think it's anybody's guess how the teams will finish. We're running better and better each race so the boys are anxious to go out and give it their best and see where they come out."
Garden's boys, meanwhile, will be out to improve on a third-place finish from a season ago. Dodge City once again will be favored to repeat its own title in that division. The Red Demons won with 32 pointswith Liberal taking runner-up honors with 45 points. The Buffs took third with 76 points, ahead of Great Bend (78) and Hays (107).
Jackson, Miller and Katy Doll all earned WAC first-team honors with their top 5 finishes while Jalen Rowland, now a senior, was an honorable mention selection on the boys side after placing seventh, the highest finish for the Buffs.
This will be the first time the Buffaloes' harriers have raced at home in five seasons as the WAC championship rotates among the five league schools.
The Lady Buffs have continued to be impressive all season, most recently taking third in a tough El Dorado Invitational as Miller placed fourth individually. Along with Miller, Jackson, and Katy Doll, the Lady Buffs also return Kayla Doll, Neysa Harman, Maria Rodriguez and Savannah Peters from the 2011 WAC championship squad. The Buffs' boys are loaded with seniors and Linenberger is hoping that experience pays off with a top performance on Thursday.
Along with Rowland, Jacob Thomas has been consistently near the top of the GCHS runners throughout the regular season. In addition, Heath Winkelman, Cody Nagel, Aaron Peters, Chris Resley and Brett Cady will compete.
After Thursday's league meet, the Buffs will have nine days until the Class 6A regional is contested at the Wichita Cessna Activity Center. That will determine qualifiers for the Oct. 27 state meet at Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence where the girls finished seventh as a team in 2011.