Along U.S. Highway 24 in Wamego, not more than 100 yards across the road from the Wamego Country Club and site of the class 2A state cross country championships, is the Bennington State Bank.
Nearly half of the class 2A girls state cross country championships since 2007 have been won by Bennington, including the past two. Bennington has had three individual state champions during that time, as well.
Suffice it to say that Bennington has built some equity in Wamego over the past dozen years.
Bad puns aside, the Bulldogs have a good shot to make it three in a row when the state championships take place Saturday at the famed Wamego course. Bennington touts a familiar formula as it tries to retain the state title: strong front runners and state-meet experience.
But they'll face an Ellinwood team that is nearly a mirror-image. Ellinwood sophomore Erin Hammeke has the No. 2 time in class 2A this season, heading a squad that could have three girls in the top 10 at state, including sophomore Ashtin Klepper and senior Sarah Hammeke.
Bennington sophomore Peyton Piepho (fourth at state last year) and freshman Ashlyn Harbaugh (season PR of 20:00) lead the way for the defending champs. The duo posted a 1-2 finish at regionals this past weekend. The Bulldogs also have 2015 state champion Kya Johnson, now a senior who has run 20:27 this year and was fourth at regionals.
Interestingly, the fourth and fifth runners from Bennington have season PR's that are within seconds of the fourth and fifth runners from Ellinwood. The girls' title, then, likely comes down to which team can get its fourth and fifth runners to the finish line first.
Not many folks doubt which boy will get to the finish line first in class 2A, however. That would be Yates Center superstar Hadley Splechter, who has dominated distance running in the division to the tune of six state titles since the 2017 track and field season.
Splechter also has the state's fastest time this cross country season, clocking 15:18.7 to finish third at the Rim Rock Classic in September. He is widely considered the best runner in Kansas right now, regardless of classification.
But you can't tell that to Ethan Thompson of Meade, who has been a worthy competitor for Splechter the past two seasons. Thompson has been the runner-up to Splechter the last three times they have matched up at a state meet, including last year's 2A cross country championships in Wamego. Thompson also has a season- and career-best time of 15:40, so he's certainly capable of winning this meet.
The two are expected to make quick work of the rest of the field on Saturday, then fight it out for class 2A supremacy. Henry Nelson of Bishop-Seabury - fourth at state last year - is probably the best of the rest, though he could also make things interesting with Splechter and Thompson.
Splechter led Yates Center to its first-ever state championship in cross country last year, but the Wildcats didn't even get a full team to state this year. Central Heights seems to have the inside track to the boys' team title. The squad has posted a pack time around 1:00 for most of the season, nearly 30 seconds better than any other team has managed this year. They also won their regional meet last weekend by a whopping 77 points, placing three runners in the top five (Alex Cannady, Tyler Stevenson, and Caleb Meyer).
Stanton County and Lakin are the other top contenders in the boys' division. Central Heights' girls may also find the podium and on a good day could make Bennington and Ellinwood nervous. Helen Giefer of Trego Community, the class 2A two-mile champion last spring, has run nearly a minute faster than any other class 2A girl and is a strong favorite to win her first state cross country title.
Class 2A Snapshot
Saturday, October 27 at the Wamego Country Club
Boys Start: 10 a.m.
Girls Start: 11:45 a.m.
Defending team champions: Yates Center (boys); Bennington (girls)
2018 Kansas MileSplit Predictions:
Boys individual champion: Hadley Splechter, Yates Center
Girls individual champion: Helen Giefer, Trego Community
Boys team champion: Central Heights
Girls team champion: Bennington