CLASS 3A STATE PREVIEW: Burks, Kettler Matchup Highlights Individual Races

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If you're heading to Rim Rock Farm for the Kansas cross country championships on Saturday, take notice when the class 3A girls race gets going: There's a mighty battle a-brewin'.


Hiawatha's Elizabeth Kettler and Beloit's Hannah Burks are likely to put on a great show as the two renew a matchup that has had fans on their feet at past state meets.


In three state meet races last year against one another, Kettler won two and Burks won one. Kettler, a junior, was second at the state cross country meet last year and Burks, a sophomore, was third.


At the state track and field championships in the spring, Kettler was the state champion in the 3200 and Burks was the runner-up. Burks later placed second in the 1600 while Kettler was seventh.


Heading into Saturday's showdown, the duo are far and away ahead of the rest of the pack. Their season-best times are 40 seconds better than anyone else, and -- of course -- are nearly identical. Burks' best this year has been 19:23.8, while Kettler has run 19:24.0.


Both are the type of runners that coaches love: gritty, dig-down-to-your-toenails, fight-to-the-finish tough. It's the stuff that gets spectators fired up, so go ahead and hoop and holler and enjoy the homestretch of the class 3A girls race.


Not that the boys' race isn't going to produce excitement. In fact, defending champion Robert 'Owen' Pearce of Kingman had an unusual slip-up last week that makes me think that as many as six others have a chance to take his state title away this year.


One of those is his own teammate, Teagan Flanagan, a junior in his first year of running cross country. Flanagan has steadily improved this season, and at last week's regional meet, beat Pearce to the finish line.


Jack Thomas of Scott Community is unbeaten in eight races this season, and has a season best of 16:05 that he ran at the Wamego Country Club, a course known for its rolling hills and 180-degree switchbacks that often prevent fast times. He was eighth at the class 4A state meet last year -- he will finish much higher than that this year.


Other top contenders in the 3A boys' race include Justin Hodge of Hiawatha; Luke Oatney of Pleasant Ridge; Brett Kulp of Riley County; and Dallin Bailey of West Franklin. Hodge is a freshman who has won his last three races and has a season best of 16:26, while the others are seasoned runners who each have a top 10 finish at the state meet in the past.


I'm certainly not counting out Pearce, who has won five races this year and has run 16:01 this season, the best time in class 3A. He also placed 13th in the Rim Rock Classic Gold Division in late September, competing against many of the best runners in a seven-state region.


Hugoton swept the boys' and girls' state titles last year, but has since moved up to class 4A. But there's a very good chance that there will still be another sweep of the two team titles on Saturday.


Hiawatha, led by Hodge and Kettler, are the teams in each division with the most depth. Hiawatha has never won a team title in cross country, and they just may get two in one day. Hiawatha swept their respective league and regional titles the past two weeks, and now are the favorites to add more gold to the trophy case.


Hiawatha's boys may have beaten their closest foes at regionals. Riley County and Sabetha finished behind Hiawatha and will get a shot to take them down again. Halstead and Scott Community also should factor in the race to the boys' podium.


Hiawatha's girls may have a bit more room to spare, but winning the team title still won't be easy. They'll get a good challenge from Scott Community, Beloit, St. Mary's and Sabetha.


CLASS 3A SNAPSHOT


Boys Teams Competing -- Central Heights, Council Grove, Halstead, Hesston, Hiawatha, Kingman, Norton Community, Riley County, Sabetha, Scott Community, Southeast of Saline, West Franklin.


Girls Teams Competing -- Beloit, Cimarron, Council Grove, Douglass, Fredonia, Hiawatha, Osage City, Sabetha, St. Mary's, Scott County, Sedgwick, Thomas More Prep.


Race times -- 3A girls at 11:10 a.m., 3A boys at 12:55 p.m. at Rim Rock Farm, Lawrence.


Prediction -- Team champions Hiawatha boys and girls; Individual champions Robert 'Owen' Pearce of Kingman and Elizabeth Kettler of Hiawatha.


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