By BRETT MARSHALL
WAMEGO — Stanton County senior Eric Ruth was unsure how he would improve on his fourth place finish from last year's Class 2A state cross meet.
After all, the three runners who had beaten him a year ago, were all underclassmen.
On Saturday, though, over the, Wamego Country Club layout, it was Ruth who grabbed the gold medal by winning with a time of 17:01.97 over the 3.1 mile course.
He did it convincingly, finishing almost 12 seconds of Wathena's Cody Miller, who had beaten him by two seconds a year ago for third. Defending champion Cory Kuehn of Jackson Heights wasn't a factor this year, finishing 25th and almost a minute and a half behind Ruth. And Dylan Sicka of Yates Center had dropped down to Class 1A.
"I really came into this race pretty much blind about the other runners because we don't run against them all year," Ruth said. "I just decided to spot myself and get off to a better start."
Ruth said he had a rough start last year but it was decidedly a different beginning on Saturday.
"Coaches and I decided to go out hard, find the guys to run with and stay right there near the lead," Ruth said.
Ruth did just that and by the final mile had taken the lead, then built on it.
"Just about a half mile to go there's a little loop left and coach hollered for me to turn it loose, so I just did what he told me to do," Ruth said. "It's just really nice to finish off the year strong."
The weather was in the high 50s, compared to a year ago when the late starting times for Class 2A and the temperature near 80 degrees at the beginning of the race.
"The weather today made a world of difference for me," Ruth said. "I didn't have to worry about any heat like last year. It was just perfect out there."
Ruth's final cross country campaign with a sickness that had mononucleosis-like symptoms, but turned out to be a virus. He didn't race at the outset of the schedule, and it was just past the mid-point of the season when he began to feel like his old self and could train hard.
"Once I started feeling better, I just wanted to have three good races (Hi-Plains League, regional and state)," Ruth said. "And I did. It's just an amazing feeling. When we got here this morning I didn't know how the day would turn out, but this is pretty good."
Ruth's performance was just one of many top individual efforts from southwest Kansas area individuals.
Wichita County freshman Paige Wells finished second in the Class 2A girls division. Her time of 16:35.20 was 2.4 seconds ahead of third-place finisher Katelyn Henderson from Olpe, while Sacred Heart's Ally Balderston took the top spot in 16:24.25.
Wells captured the regional title a week before at Meade.
"It was intimidating at the start with so many runners all bunched up together," Wells said. "I felt good warming up and I felt good through the race."
Wells said the race start, which goes up a hill for the first 150 yards, got her attention.
"Ugh, it looked awful when we walked the course, but it wasn't as tough when we started running," Wells said.
"It took a while but I finally overtook some of them coming down the hill in the middle of the course. I could see (Balderston) and knew there were two others right close to me and coming down the stretch I just ran as hard as I could."
The runner-up finish came as a mild surprise to Wells, whose win in the regional was her first of the season.
"I thought maybe a sixth or seventh might be possible if I ran well, so I really don't have any words to describe how this feels," Wells said.
Wells led the Lady Indians to third place in the team competition with 121 points while Bennington (65) and Maranatha Academy (99) finished 1-2.
In the 3A girls division, Lakin's Julia Rosales placed 20th. She finished in 17:08.17. Scott City senior Caitlin Beckman was the top 4A girls runner with a time of 16:43.54 and a 24th place finish. Ulysses' Janni Meierhoff finished out of the medal race for the first time in her four-year career 33rd (16:50.59).
"It just wasn't my day, I have no excuses," Meierhoff said. "I felt good before, but then when we got started my whole front thighs tightened up and I just couldn't get them loose."
Stanton County's Patty Perez earned a medal in the 2A girls division by placing 19th with a time of 17:21.13.
South Gray senior Kayla Thomas improved her time by nearly eight seconds from 2008, but it wasn't enough as she placed seventh compared to fifth a year ago. Her time of 16:39.66 was just 2.4 seconds behind the fifth place runner.
Three area boys runners placed in the top 20 in Class 4A with Scott City's Sam McDaniel leading the way with a surprising 10th place finish. His time of 17:12.03 enabled him to beat fellow area runners Israel Mendoza of Ulysses (12th in 17:13.19) and Hugoton's Heber Jimenez (19th in 17:28.27).
"It's the first full year I've done just cross country and it feels good to get a medal," McDaniel said. "I dropped eight seconds off last week and this is a big achievement for me."
In the Class 3A boys race, with Holcomb rolling to the team victory and having two runners in the top five, it was left to Kayson Matthews of Lakin to make a run at the individual title after being at the top of many of the area's regular season meets including a win at last week's regional in Cimarron.
But the Broncs' senior faded in the final 1.5 miles after taking an early lead and indicated that he just wasn't feeling good after the race started.
"I was feeling good before and at the start (of the race)," Matthews said. "But then I started feeling a little sick and felt like I couldn't lift my legs. To go from feeling like I was going to win to this is really beyond disappointment. It was my main goal of the year. I just have to remind myself I had a good season and then there's track in the spring."
Garden City's Jonny Bernasky, the lone Buffaloes' runner, placed 51st in the Class 6A race at Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence. His time was 17:26.65.
See results in Scoreboard, Page B2.