WEEK 2 PREVIEW: Wamego, Emporia Hosting Large Meets Saturday

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If you feel a slight bend down the middle of the State of Kansas this weekend, you can blame Rick Patton.

The veteran Wamego coach has a knack for pulling off a great early-season meet, and this year is no different. Patton's Red Raiders will host the largest meet in Kansas that is hosted by a high school team when the annual Wamego Invitational takes place on Saturday.


The meet has a reputation for giving state cross country fans a preview of the state meet. Not only is it held on the same course where the 1A/2A/4A state championships will be held in late October, it also attracts most of the teams that will be there.


In all, 60 teams will run in the Wamego Invitational. Put another way, that's one-fifth of all the schools that run high school cross country in Kansas. And it includes most of the best runners and teams in class 1A through 4A, from all parts of the state.


Patton says there will be 28 teams in 4A division Saturday, and 32 teams in the 1A-3A division.


The defending champions in the 4A division are the Circle boys and girls teams, which won handily and at the time had placed themselves squarely as strong contenders for the 5A state crown.


Both teams return this year with a very good chance of repeating the sweep of the Wamego team titles. Senior Kelsie Kelly leads the Circle girls while freshman Eli Jacobson was the top finishers for the boys' squad at the J.K. Gold Classic last weekend.


The individual race in the 4A boys division may come down to a fight between Jack Thomas of Scott Community and Cale Carson of El Dorado. Thomas posted the division's top time of 16:21 to win the Goodland Invitational last week, while Carson clocked 16:22 to finish second at the J.K. Gold Classic.


The girls 4A chase could be a thriller. Clearwater's Aimee Davis won the Wamego Invitational last year, but she did not run at her home invitational last week and may still be injured. That would leave Anderson County senior Averi Wilson - second place last year - as the top returner.


Wilson should be challenged by Scott Community's Makaela Stevens and Hugoton's Abby Heger, both of whom opened their season with individual wins last week.


One storyline to watch, though, is whether Hugoton drops down to the 1A-3A race. Last September's enrollment count moved the school to class 3A, where they subsequently swept the 2016 boys' and girls' state titles at Rim Rock Farm. Hugoton would be a huge favorite to win the Wamego meet if they enter the 1A-3A races.


The girls' 1A-3A race will certainly have a high-intensity feel. The top six finishers at this meet from a year ago return to face off again, including Helen (five-time state medalist and sixth in class 2A cross country last year) and Sybil Giefer (seventh in class 2A) of Trego Community; Halle (three-time state champion in track and field last spring) and Kya Johnson (2015 class 2A state champion and 2016 runner-up in cross country) of Bennington; Erin Topham (fourth in class 2A cross country last year) of Berean Academy; and Lexi Kats (fourth in class 3A cross country) of Norton Community.


That group alone represents some great star power in Wamego.


The boys 1A-3A race is a great chance to check out Brodric Shirley of Frankfort and Luke Oatney of Pleasant Ridge. Shirley was second at this meet a year ago, and was a two-time medalist at the track and field championships in the spring. Oatney was eighth in the class 1A cross country championships last year, and third in the 1600 at the track and field state meet.


Races begin at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Wamego Country Club, on the west side of town.


Emporia Invitational


Two teams noticeably absent from the 4A race in Wamego will be Maize South and Andover Central. Maize South swept the boys and girls 4A state titles last year, while Andover Central was second in the girls race and third in the boys race.


Instead, they're running in Emporia on Saturday, where the field has swelled to nearly 1,200 high school and junior high runners at Jones Park.


The Emporia Invitational has benefitted from Wichita North cancelling their annual meet. Many Wichita-area schools are now heading to Emporia, combining with what was already a strong field of teams.


The boys team race should be a pretty good matchup between Maize, Maize South, Manhattan and Mill Valley, with Washburn Rural and Wichita North lurking. Based on last week's opening meets, Mill Valley seems to be the best packing team and so could have an advantage on a course that has tight turns and narrow stretches to pass.


Nathan Jones of Maize, a senior, enters with the best time among individuals, clocking 16:13 to win the Bishop Carroll Invitational last weekend. But he's going to have to hold off a host of accomplished runners, including sophomore Jack Terry and junior Greg Haynes of Mill Valley; and seniors Bryce Merriman of Maize South and Cooper Schroeder of Manhattan.


The girls' individual race features numerous runners with a lot of state medals to their credit. Clara Mayfield of Manhattan, a junior, enters with the state's second-best time (18:54 to win her home meet last week), but senior Destini Eskridge of Maize South and senior Britton Nelson of Mill Valley should be game challengers on Saturday.


Eskridge won the Bishop Carroll Invitational last weekend in 19:37, while Nelson, who placed third in class 5A state last year, led a vicious Pack Attack by Mill Valley that took down defending class 5A state champion St. Thomas Aquinas last week. Mill Valley has three others who could potentially finish in the top 10 at the Emporia meet, including Morgan Koca, Delaney Kemp and Molly Haymaker.


Junction City senior Michelle Sanchez, Emporia senior Abby Stewart, Manhattan's Ella Rosenkranz, and Wichita East's Emilie Endsley are also running well and will be near the lead pack this weekend.


Mill Valley's girls enter as a favorite for the girls' team crown, but Maize South (class 4A state champs last year) and Manhattan (third in class 6A last year) will be tough to beat. Lawrence Free State (class 6A state champs last year), Maize and Andover Central (second in class 4A last year) also could be in the mix.


Around the state...


Class 5A defending state champion St. Thomas Aquinas takes it annual trek to St. Louis to participate in the Forrest Park Cross Country Festival Saturday. The meet features numerous divisions for both high school and middle school runners, beginning at 7:30 a.m. and finishing in mid-afternoon.


 Aquinas' boys won the meet last year, while the girls' team was fourth.


Fort Scott, Girard and Lyndon host high school meets on Thursday, highlighting many of the best runners in southeast Kansas. Yates Center's boys, a team that could take the class 2A state title this year, is expected to run at Lyndon.


Saturday's schedule includes meets at Hesston, Holton, Olathe North, Santa Fe Trail, South Gray, Stockton and Topeka West.