Cross country has long been one of the dominant sports for southwest Kansas high schools, and the 2014 season was no exception.
Garden City High School’s boys team capped off a stellar fall campaign by finishing a program-best second place in the Class 6A state meet held at Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence on Oct. 31.
The Lady Jackrabbits of Greeley County accomplished a rare three-peat, as they won their third consecutive Class 1A state title at Wamego Country Club on Nov. 1.
Hugoton junior Isaac Castro, who placed second in Class 4A at Wamego, was voted The Telegram’s Cross Country Runner of the Year.
Those accomplishments earned the fall cross country season the No. 6 Telegram Sports Story of the Year.
For the past three seasons, the GCHS boys program had watched their girl counterparts finish seventh, second and second, respectively, at the state meet. This season, it was the boys’ turn to excel.
All season, the Buffs’ boys had been consistently high in competition, having won meets at Hays and El Dorado, while finishing a strong sixth at the Rim Rock Invitational in late September on the same course they would run at state.
While most of the season sophomores Marcus Tula and Erik Chaparro traded off as the top runner, it was senior Luis Carmona, a transfer from Texas, who paved the way for the Buffs’ runner-up finish in the 6A state.
Just 18 hours after competing for the Buffs boys soccer team in a regional game in Garden City, Carmona was in Lawrence ready to run for coach Krista Linenberger.
Carmona was brilliant, running in seventh place to lead a strong contingent of Buffs, who packed their running by having the top five finish only 49 seconds apart.
“He was certainly questionable about how he would run,” Linenberger said at the time of Carmona, who had been nursing a tender back injury all season. “He certainly rose to the occasion, and it was fun to watch.”
Tula, who had won the 6A regional the week before in Wichita, placed 18th while Chaparro was close behind Carmona in ninth place. The team tallied 84 points, well back of title winner Blue Valley’s 53 points.
“The boys had a great day, and I think the key to that was when it was over, they were a bit disappointed they didn’t win, so their expectations for themselves were quite high,” Linenberger said.
In addition to those three runners, the Buffs also had Ray Urbina (29th) and Jesus Reyes (42nd) in the scoring for the team. Also competing were Javier Cervantes (52nd) and Juan Pineda Gomez (95th).
The Buffs also captured the Western Athletic Conference championship by dethroning Liberal. Tula, Carmona and Chaparro ran 3-4-5 in that meet. By midseason, it was evident the Buffs had something special going as they won the El Dorado Invitational in much the same fashion, as Carmona, Tula and Chaparro finished 2-3-4.
For the Greeley County girls, going to Wamego and competing at state has almost become their home away from home. With the three-peat completed, the Lady Jackrabbits have now won seven of the last nine Class 1A state cross country crowns.
Veteran coach Greg Cook, who was voted Coach of the Year for his team’s repeat, said he was fortunate to have such an outstanding group of runners, who appreciate the tradition that has been established at the school.
“With this year’s team, it seemed like we didn’t really have one standout,” Cook said in an early December interview. “We had a pack, and the pack continually improved all season.”
It was the pack running that proved pivotal for the Lady ‘Rabbits, with the first through fifth runners placing between 18th and 27th, only 45 seconds separating the top and bottom runners.
“The fourth and fifth runners were very important again this year,” Cook said. “My fourth runner really stepped up and came through. My fifth runner, a freshman, stepped up in the last half mile and passed a Macksville runner that we really needed.”
The nearly decade-long run for the ‘Rabbits has come without the benefit of a single individual championship. And lest anyone think the Greeley County girls will be outside the hunt in 2015, Cook returns four of his five runners from this year’s championships quad, including his top runner, Kashli Holthaus.
Hugoton’s Castro, meanwhile, had quite the fall campaign, running consistently throughout the September-October season.
He won the Great West Activities Conference individual gold medal, and then followed that up with a Class 4A regional championship. He capped off his stellar year with the runner-up finish at Wamego.
From a 24th-place state finish as a freshman, to ninth as a sophomore, and now a runner-up finish, Castro has dropped his state time by 51 seconds.
“Issac has been a great young guy to coach,” Hugoton coach Nick Rodriguez said. “He always looks to challenge himself each and every day. I am very fortunate to be his coach.”
With a second-place silver medal now tucked away, there’s only one other position left for him to move up, and that’s a goal he has set for himself for 2015.
“It’s my favorite course, and I think it’s a good one for me,” Castro said of the hilly Wamego Country Club layout. “I’m excited about next season, and can’t wait for it to get here.”