AJ Rubio placed third in last year's Flint Hills League Meet. Photo by Alexander Walters.
Ten months. 305 days. 439,200 minutes. That's how long we've been waiting for Kansas high school running to return. Not that we've been keeping track.
That wait finally came to an end on Thursday, where several schools kicked off their season around the state. Yep, there were races... against real people! One of those meets took place in the rolling pastures of Wabaunsee County: the Mission Valley Invitational.
Historically, Mission Valley has hosted some blazing hot meets. It starts at 4:00 in the afternoon, when it often reaches over 100 degrees in late August and early September. This year was the exception, however, with a cool 85 and low humidity welcoming Kansas athletes back to the course. The grass was mowed, the paint was fresh, and runners were on the line, and for a moment, all is silent.
Then the race begins and that familiar cross country feeling comes rushing back. The middle school race came first. The meet had lost a few teams from previous years due to a meet in nearby Silver Lake on Saturday, so they combined the boys and girls for this one. Leading the way was Levi Waring from Council Grove. A wire-to-wire race in 12:45 secured his gold medal. North Lyon County's Logan Schlimme gave chase early, but fell back to 3rd after a few minutes, and was out-kicked later on to finish 4th. Valentin Mascote (13:30) finished in 2nd, fending off a long, drawn out kick from teammate Brycen Palmquist (13:31). For the girls, Mission Valley's Hemi Duehring was the champ, beating half the boys and crossing in 15:35. Cornerstone's Kieran McKinley wasn't far behind in 16:03 and Mission Valley's Lillie Foster was 3rd in 16:52. All three girls were 7th graders, so they'll all have a chance to improve on those times again next year before stepping up to 5K.
In the High School Girls division, the race was eerily familiar to a year ago. Cornerstone Senior Evie Gentry came out ready to race. She took the lead early and never looked back, clenching a victory in 22:06. Rossville's Julia Streit, 2nd a year ago to Gentry, hung around the whole race but never had a chance to make up ground. She finished 30 seconds back in 22:36. Streit's last outing was a 12th place finish at 2A state last year, so she has experience near the front and high expectations for this season. Jordyn Picolet from Council Grove battled for the 2nd place spot in the first half of the race but settled for 3rd in 23:15. Rossville had a second strong runner in sophomore Amelia Foster, but as the race progressed she found herself in no-man's-land with no competitors around her. She wound up with a 23:36 and was key in Rossville's team victory. Rounding out the top-5 was Teagan Hines from Northern Heights, kicking her way into 5th place in the final moments.
The last race of the afternoon was a battle. Clusters of runners formed, and most athletes found themselves jockeying for position late into the race. After the first quarter mile, it was clear who the favorites were. Mission Valley sophomore AJ Rubio shot out of a cannon, distancing himself 20 yards from 2nd place. Of course, that didn't last long as Council Grove's Kodi Downes surged up alongside. A pair of Northern Heights wildcats merrily worked their way into the 3rd and 4th place spots, working together well as teammates often do. The two leaders would stay deadlocked through 2 miles. As they crossed a farm pond dam, Downes took the lead for the first time, making his move on the inclined switchbacks that followed. Rubio would not be denied, though, and the two were again side-by-side at the top of the hill. A ways back, the battle for 5th was raging, with Cooper Shroer and Brock Lauer from Chase County jockeying for position with Rossville's Sam Twombly. As the race hurtled towards the finish, Rubio showed his experience, outkicking the freshman Downes 17:26 to 17:28 down the stretch. It was a 37-second PR for Rubio, a fine opening to the season. The two have met before, with similar results. These two youngsters look to have a high-caliber rivalry in their future. Northern Heights' Jerrod Campbell (18:41) and Cooper Hamlin (19:12) remained in their 3 and 4 slots, while Rossville's Sam Twombly won the battle to round out the top-5. On the team side, Northern Heights had a strong showing, but with only 4 runners. Had they been able to find another Wildcat to even take last place, they would have won the meet. Instead, Council Grove took the crown with a 3-point edge over St. Mary's Academy.