Southwest Kansas cross country still running strong
By BRETT MARSHALL
Every fall, on the weekend of Halloween, it's 'trick or treat' time.
It means that its state championship Saturday for cross country teams across Kansas.
And it also means that teams and individuals from southwest Kansas will once again be challenging for top honors when Classes 1A, 2A and 4A compete at Wamego Country Club while Classes 3A, 5A and 6A run at Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence.
It's no secret that cross country and success in southwest Kansas go hand-in-hand. Over the history of the state meet, the 19 area schools have produced an astonishing 53 team championships in the sport. It's almost an even split between boys (since 1956) and girls (since 1977). Twenty-six boys teams and 27 girls squads have claimed team championships.
If regional qualifying results from the most recent Saturday are any indication, southwest Kansas once again will be well represented at both sites.
Greeley County's boys and girls, both runners-up in 2011 at the state meet, claimed Class 1A team titles at Meade, while Stanton County's boys and girls were first and second, respectively, at the same Meade site.
In Class 3A, Holcomb's boys, a perennial power over the past decade, set themselves up for a strong run at Lawrence by taking the regional crown at Cimarron, while the host Lady Bluejays claimed the runner-up team spot. Kari Blattner and Isabelle Koopman paced Cimarron with second- and fourth-place finishes. Scott City's boys claimed the third and final team spot at Cimarron behind Joey Meyer's third-place finish.
At the Class 4A regional in Buhler, Hugoton's boys, the 2011 state runner-up to Wamego, won the title while Ulysses' boys and girls earned their way to the state meet with third and second place finishes, respectively.
For Greeley County's veteran coach Greg Cook, Saturday's tune-up for another run at state titles was perhaps a prelude for what he hopes to see at Wamego.
"I was missing one of the boys who usually runs third, fourth or fifth, so I thought the other boys ran exceptionally well," said Cook, whose team was paced by senior Troy Wineinger's individual title. "I hope we see the same results this Saturday."
Cook, whose teams were both second in 2011 after claiming state girls crowns in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010 while the boys were winning titles in 2006, 2009 and 2010, has a mixture of experience and youth with his two squads. Wineinger, who has transformed himself into one of the top 1A runners (he was fifth a year ago) after not having his time count three seasons ago as a freshman when the Jackrabbits knocked off highly favored Ness City by one point.
That was when Wineinger contributed to the state title, as his finish prevented Ness City's scoring fourth runner to finish one spot higher, providing that one-point margin to topple the previously unbeaten Eagles.
"We talked about that the other day coming home from Meade," Cook said. "He doesn't want to go out the same way that Ness City did that year. He's taken it upon himself and he's given great guidance to our younger runners. He's put a lot of work into this since his freshman year, and he'd like to win both the individual and bring back a team championship."
As far as his Lady Jackrabbits, Cook said that sophomore Coraima Yanez, eighth a year ago at the state meet, has assumed the leadership role following the graduation of four-year standout Kennedy Schneider, now at the University of Kansas.
"She had Kennedy to follow and didn't have to worry about a leadership role," Cook said of Yanez, who won the Meade regional by more than 25 seconds. "I had some concerns the first couple of meets because she didn't have a teammate to chase. But she's learned that she's the one now — it's her turn to lead. She's matured through the season. She's accepted that position and she's done a great job of getting the freshmen girls focused on their races. It was scary at first, but she's stepped into it."
Hugoton's boys will be looking to duplicate a Class 4A runner-up finish at this year's meet in Wamego, and despite the fact that he has his top runners returning from 2011 — seniors Patrick Weaver and Jacob Martin — coach Nick Rodriguez knows his team faces a big challenge on Saturday.
"Wamego's still the pick," Rodriguez said of the defending champs. "But you've also got Mulvane, DeSoto, Baldwin, and now Winfield has dropped down from 5A. Our class is as tough as there is. I've told some people that we might run as well or better than a year ago and might not get to the podium this time. It could be our best team and we could come home without a trophy."
Indeed, Weaver and Martin have been the leaders of this Eagles' squad, and at the Buhler regional, the pair finished third and fourth individually to help them win the regional team title.
"Those two guys have been gunning for the top all season," Rodriguez said of Weaver and Martin. "If everybody else fills in nicely and we can close the gap on times, we might have a chance to get a trophy."
By virtue of qualifying both its boys and girls, Ulysses coach Georjean Perez believes it may be the first time in her 11 years that the Tigers have sent both teams to the state. And she's done it with relatively few seniors on either roster.
"We're mainly juniors and freshmen, a sophomore here and a senior there," Perez said. "I think when you start in August, you're hoping for that (state qualifying), but you don't know until everybody shows up what you're going to have to work with. In the past, we've had some that didn't come out, and we had that again this year. But the kids we've got, it's been exciting to see them grow and improve through the season."
Sophomore Chisholm Branscum has been the most consistent top finisher for the Lady Tigers and was second at the Buhler 4A regional on Saturday. Her time of 15:50.1 was just slightly more than 3 seconds behind winner Kaylah Romine of Pratt and 14 seconds ahead of the third-place runner.
"She's a tireless worker and kind of sets the tone for a lot of our training," Perez said of Branscum. "The other girls have all stepped up and done their share, too. It's been a growing process for them as they understand more what it takes to do well."
On the boys side, the Tigers have been led by Zach Miller, Kolin Loewen and Adonus Jaquez. The three have traded off finishing ahead of each other all season.
"The varsity boys changes quite a bit from meet to meet," Perez said. "They keep pushing the pace and that's been our thing this year. That's the part that has been so fun, to see them keep getting better."
Few programs statewide have a stronger tradition than Stanton County in Class 2A, and this year's Trojans once again have a strong representation for both the boys and girls teams. With 10 girls and nine boys state team championships, the Trojans have their sights set on bringing home at least one title and two trophies.
"There's just a lot of tradition here, we talk to the kids about it all the time," said Trojans coach Mike Horton. "Early on, we were blessed with great athletes who enjoyed running. Coach (Ark) Morris built that and the kids believe they should win. Our goal is to first get to state and then we want to compete to win."
This year's boys are led by senior Raul Pantoja, who was fourth a year ago, while Fabian Avela was a top 20 finisher. The girls, meanwhile, are led by a pair of sophomores — Jenna Black (seventh in 2011) and Haley Floyd. The two have traded finishing ahead of the other during the season and Horton sees that competition as a healthy one.
"They're really, really good friends and they train together all the time," Horton said of the two. "Haley's been consistently improving after having a strong performance in track in the spring. I think we're still looking for the best from Jenna. It's always hard to know for sure, but she may have held back some in regionals (fourth to Floyd's second). We know state's the big race where we want to run our best."
On the boys side, Pantoja led the regional assault with a third-place individual finish, while the Trojans easily captured the team title with 28 points to Berean Academy's 81. Six runners finished in the top 20 for Horton.
"Ellinwood's got a really good team, and we know Ness City will be competitive again," Horton said of some of the other top 2A schools for the boys. "We should be competitive. You always hope to have all your runners be at their best on the day your run at state. It won't be easy, but I know the kids are looking forward to running there again."
Wichita County's teams ran at the Hill City Class 2A regional and junior Joshua Mehl and senior Paige Wells each qualified, with Mehl taking eighth in the boys division and Wells claiming fifth. Wells, a runner-up in 2009 as a freshman, a third-place finisher in 2011 and top 10 finish her sophomore season, is coming off surgery in early June on both legs for a painful leg condition called compartment syndrome.
Now fully healed, Wells began running in mid-September and has continued to improve each week, according to coach Shad Mehl.
"Each week, she's getting stronger and is in better condition," Mehl said of Wells. "We're not quite sure where she's at for this coming week, but we know she'll go give it her best. She's excited to have the chance to run again."
At Wamego, 2A boys and girls will run at 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.; 1A girls and boys will race at 10:30 a.m. and noon; 4A boys and girls will run at 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. At Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence, 5A boys and girls will run at 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.; 3A girls and 3A boys will run at noon; 6A boys and girls will race at 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.
Notes: Previews on Garden City and Holcomb will appear in Thursday's edition of The Telegram.
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