By BRETT MARSHALL
SYRACUSE — Mother Nature provided a near-perfect day for the area's best cross country runners and they responded in kind with top-notch performances at the Syracuse Invitational held at the Tamarisk Golf Course.
Wichita County junior Paige Wells and Hugoton senior Patrick Weaver won individual honors while the Lakin girls and Hugoton boys claimed team championships.
For Wells, the victory came in the absence of Stanton County freshman Jenna Black, who was diagnosed with mononucleosis last Monday, and is expected to miss at least two weeks of competition. Black had previously beaten Wells and Greeley County's Kennedy Schneider twice, but could only look on from a golf cart at Saturday's race.
Without Black, the girls race was an all-too familiar battle between Wells and Schneider, two of Western Kansas' premier runners over the past two seasons.
Wells, who took the lead just before the mid-point of the race, took command over the final third of a mile and won the 2.3 mile race in a time of 14:30 with Schneider finishing a distant second in 14:47. Cimarron freshmen — Kari Blattner and Joi Smith — were third and fourth in 14:57 and 14:59.
Coriama Yanez of Greeley County rounded out the top-five in 15:22.
On the boys side, it was Weaver and teammate Jacob Martin running neck-and-neck to the finish line, with Weaver finishing two seconds in front of his teammate. Weaver's winning mark of 16:28, and Martin's time of 16:30 were comfortably in front of Elkhart's Seph Iman's 16:43. Troy Wineinger of Greeley County (17:02) and Adonus Jaquez of Ulysses (17:04) completed the top-five boys finishers.
The victory was refreshing for Wells, after coming in second to Black at both the Greeley County and Stanton County Invitationals earlier in September.
"She pulls us, me and Kennedy," Wells said. "Today, without her, it was up to Kennedy and me. Mainly, I'm just trying to go out and run my best. The race for me right now is not about place. I'm working on evening my splits (at the half-mile marks). I need to keep working on that."
Wells, who placed fourth individually at the 2010 Class 2A state meet in helping her team to a third-place finish, said she's been working on getting better for the entire length of the race.
"I feel like I've gotten stronger, and I think I'm better in the backstretch of the race right now," Wells said. "I am just trying to run according to the way I feel. The middle to the last half-mile is my strongest part right now."
For the Hugoton gold and silver medalists, the race was as much about running together as it was which one would win. All season, the Eagles have been pointing to a return trip to the 4A state meet in Wamego, where the team finished third.
"I felt pretty calm out there, we're just trying to help each other," Weaver said. "As a team, we've been working on packing, and when we're running together we can kind of say to each other, 'it's time to go.'"
Martin said the team is eying a state title at the end of the month, and says the team has worked hard throughout the season.
"We took a week off after state track, and then were back training and running lots of miles this summer," Martin said. "Today, I think we held strong in the middle."
The teammates were able to pull away in the final half-mile from Elkhart's Seph Iman, who finished 13 seconds behind Martin.
"Seph's a really good runner, and I was a bit surprised that he didn't hang with us," Weaver said. "He's so tough, but today he didn't kick with us."
The team triumph for the Lakin girls came with their top runner earning a sixth-place finish. From there, the Lady Broncs had an eighth, ninth and 15th place finish to propel them to the team title by four points over Ulysses.
"There were some aspects that we liked, and some things we still have to work on," said Lakin coach Ron Overeem. "We're still trying to get packed up. My first four are doing a good job of that and Emma (Ruiz, 43rd) knows how important that fifth spot is to how well our team does. We've got some young girls who are accepting the responsibility like they're seniors, and I'm proud of what that young group is doing."
Alex Martinez was sixth, Rachel White eighth, Jaden Bolmer ninth and Christina Castillo 15th for Overeem.
Overeem and his Lady Broncs will host the Lakin Invitational at 10 a.m. on Saturday at Louck's Municipal Golf Course.
See results in Scoreboard, Page B2.