Class 6A Season Charges On Despite Early Opt-outs

2019 Gatorade Runner of the Year Daniel Harkin leads Manhattan's push for the class 6A state title

The 2020 cross country season almost certainly will be memorable for Kansas' class 6A teams. Unfortunately, that's just as likely to be because of what happens off the course than what happens on it.

To get a good read on how it's all going to shake out, you may have to tune in tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the next...

It's barely the second day of September and up to yesterday, this is what we thought we knew: Thirteen teams in class 6A won't suit up this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Three school districts - Shawnee Mission (five teams), Kansas City, Kan. (two) and the Wichita Public Schools (six) - had shut down all fall sports while their schools managed their way through the pandemic.

Then, just yesterday (Sept. 1), the Wichita Public Schools decided to reverse course and play this fall, after all. And there are rumors swirling that the Shawnee Mission district will be doing the same sometime soon.

The reality is that the schools in the state's highest classification are there because they are located in areas where a lot of people live - which is not a good scenario for controlling the spread of a highly-contagious virus. It's what makes competing in sports particularly dicey for class 6A teams right now.

In late August, the Kansas State High School Activities Association released guidelines for schools that opt out of fall sports to participate in an alternative fall season - roughly early March through late April next year. KSHSAA also approved a plan to keep fall state championships in the fall so long as a minimum eight teams are available to compete in a given sport.

There will not be any state championships contested next spring for teams and athletes in the traditional fall sports.

The situation will remain in flux at least through Sept. 21, by which time schools have their final opportunity to opt out of fall sports and keep the option of playing in the spring. Even then, should any class 6A school experience an outbreak after the cut-off date, there's nothing to keep the school's decision-makers from pulling their teams from competition at a moment's notice.

That brings us to today, just hours from opening the 2020 Kansas cross country season. In class 6A, 29 teams (including Wichita's opt-back-in) remain to chase the state championship in late October. That said, even if the quantity of teams is down, the quality most certainly will not be.

Using MileSplit's virtual meet app as a guideline, the effect of the early opt-outs is minimal. In class 6A boys, only Shawnee Mission East (ranked eighth) will be missing from the state's top 10; and on the girls' side, only Shawnee Mission South (tenth) is not competing this least not today.

Also, class 6A is where the state's best boys runner resides, that being Manhattan's Daniel Harkin, the 2019 Gatorade Kansas Runner of the Year.

Harkin is back for his senior year, having posted a career-best of 15:11 in winning the Missouri Southern Stampede in Joplin last year. He clocked 15:25 to win the class 6A title by 23 seconds at Rim Rock Farm, a time that also garnered the Bob Timmons Award for the fastest time by a Kansas boy at last year's state meet in Lawrence.

He'll lead a Manhattan team that appears to be primed for a strong state title push. MileSplit's virtual meet gives Manhattan the preseason nod over Mill Valley, Olathe South and Gardner-Edgerton.

Manhattan, which was fourth last year, returns six runners, including seniors Sean Anderson and Gavin Erickson, and juniors Ben Mosier and Max Bowyer.

Mill Valley likely will counter with seniors Karch Crawford, Cameron Coad and Carsyn Turpin, while Olathe South should be led by juniors Matthew Tolman and Rhys Allen. Gardner-Edgerton returns senior Quenton Walion and junior Chance Kitchen.

Defending state champion Washburn Rural - Manhattan's Centennial League rival - lost its top three runners, and four of its top seven, to graduation, but could still contend for a spot on the podium.

Among class 6A boys individuals, Olathe Northwest senior Logan Read stands as a bona fide state title contender. He was second to Harkin a year ago, out-leaning Wichita Northwest's Michael Iyali at the line to finish in 15:58.10.

Other top returners include Blue Valley West sophomore Ty Brechler, Lawrence Free State junior Ben Shryock, Olathe South's Tolman and Olathe North's Bramwel Kosgei. Just seven of last year's 20 state medalists are back this season.

The team chase for the class 6A girls state championship could be quite a tussle between at least six teams. Blue Valley Northwest appears to be the early front-runner, with key returners in seniors Riley Beach (the 2017 state champion as a freshman) and Carolyn Thurlby, and junior Cecilia Fisher.

Others entering the 2020 season with state title hopes include Olathe West, Manhattan, Blue Valley West, Mill Valley and Olathe North.

Olathe West returns all seven runners from last year's state runner-up team, including junior Ava Wardlaw and sophomores Aubree Blackman and Charis Robinson - all state medalists in 2019. Manhattan also returns a pair of state medalists in junior Jenna Keeley and sophomore Amelia Knopp.

Blue Valley West brings back junior medalists Katherine Soule and Olivia Bakker, while Mill Valley - the defending state champs - has 2018 state champ Katie Schwartzkopf, now a junior, and seniors Molly Ricker and Josie Taylor back in the fold. Olathe North, third at state a year ago, brings back juniors Lexie Dockstader and Kaylee Tobaben.

Last year's class 6A state meet was dominated by young runners as eight of the top 10 finishers and 13 of 20 were either freshmen or sophomores. That includes Blue Valley's Tori Wingrove, now a junior, who won the individual title in a great battle against Mill Valley's Schwartzkopf and Olathe West's Blackman.

We could witness a rarity at this year's class 6A girls state meet: Three former state champions competing against one another in Beach (2017), Schwartzkopf (2018) and Wingrove (2019).

A couple key runners who may be missing: Shawnee Mission South sophomore Hannah Gibson was fifth at state last year, and Shawnee Mission Northwest sophomore Paige Mullen was tenth.