The final October Saturday of the fall high school athletic season brought the curtain down on one sport, above all, that has historical connotations to the life in rural southwest Kansas.
Cross country, a sport that is both individual and team in concurrent races, has long held a tradition, steeped richly in the open spaces of this corner of the state.
Perhaps it started on the track in the early portions of the 20th century with Glenn Cunningham of Elkhart running to Olympic glory.
Whatever one wants to call it, cross country has become the primary sport, not singularly but historically, where southwest Kansas competes, and usually excels, in the sport at state championships.
Kansas first started recognizing the sport in 1956 with the implementation of the state high school boys championship, and then added girls in 1977.
Over the 61-year period of state boys and now 40 years of the girls division, southwest Kansas teams and individuals, specifically the 12 counties of The Garden City Telegram readership area, have collectively won 63 team championships — 33 girls and 30 boys — while also claiming 40 individual gold medals (21 girls, 19 boys).
The latest of those came just a few days ago when Greeley County’s “Runnin’ Jackrabbits” captured the Class 1A girls title for the ninth time in the last dozen years at Wamego, while Scott City’s Jack Thomas garnered the gold medal in Class 3A at Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence.
Stanton County, located in Johnson, has the richest harvest of cross country medals and trophies, owners of 19 state team titles (10 boys, 9 girls), with legendary Dodie Martin being one of two girls in the same time period (1995 to 1998) to claim four consecutive individual titles. Martin did so in Class 2-1A.
It was just a year ago that Rebeca Avelar claimed the Class 2A title, snapping an individual winless streak by area girls runners dating back to 2006, when Greeley County’s Shanon Robertson led her Jackrabbits to the 1A team title.
Perhaps one of the most impressive streaks came in the late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s, when the three Wood sisters from Ulysses dominated Class 4A for a period of eight years.
Lesha claimed consecutive titles in 1978-79, middle sister Joy extended it with three straight crowns (198-81-82) and Jill capped it off with three of her own (1983-84-85). Wamego would become something akin to the Wood Invitational.
The Stanton County Trojan boys, meanwhile, most of whose titles came under legendary coach Ark Morris, have had more than their share of glory, too.
They won their first two team titles (Class B) in 1962 and 1964, when Kansas had just four classes. Marlon Neely would become the first runner to win an individual title for the school.
In the intervening years, Jerry Gum, Mervyn Snowbarger, Scott Tucker, Joe Warner (2), Calen Lucas and Eric Ruth added to the history and lore of Trojan runners. Saturday, the SCHS boys placed third in 2A after a nearly complete turnover of runners from the 2016 state runner-up team.
Greeley County, too, has certainly harvested its share of trophies and medals, with most of those coming in the last dozen years. But the ‘Rabbits success, too, dates back decades.
The Jackrabbit boys won in 1979 and 1980 and added four more team titles from 2006 to 2012 under present coach Greg Cook. Charlie Moser remains the lone Greeley County boy to stand on the winner’s podium.
Cook, himself twice a state runner-up in the sport while at Dighton, has put his Jackrabbit girls into that legendary status as well.
With Saturday’s 1A crown now safely tucked away, Cook’s girls at Greeley County have laid claim to the best small school cross country team in Kansas. He’s done it without another single individual champion aside from Robertson’s 2006 crown. The latest one also came with just the four counting runners competing, leaving no margin of error.
Through the years, the last run of the cross country season for southwest Kansas high schoolers has proven to be a successful one. Saturday was just another example of that.
The motivation of cross country runners has always been a puzzling one, I think. The countless miles of training, sometimes alone, sometimes with teammates, can be a big obstacle.
Perseverance, hard work, dedication all factor into the success. Run for one, run for all. Individual and team glory awaits.
It has been a glorious season for this glorious sport.
Contact Brett Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org