They're Back! X-C Season Opens With New Twists

Erik Enriquez of Kapaun Mt. Carmel rolled to victory in Division I at the Andover Invitational. (Kansas Milesplit photo by Lathe Cobb)

The opening weekend for cross country in Kansas was like no other in the history of the state.

At most meets, runners warmed up with masks across their faces. Many of them wore the masks at the start and were allowed to peel them off a quarter mile or so into the race.

Races started in waves of about 25 to 30 runners, but sometimes with as few as 15 or 20.

Spectators running across courses? Not so much. In some places, county health orders forbid spectators from even attending the meet. They relied instead on watching online results, text messages from runners or - in at least one case - livestream video.

Schools accustomed to running in larger invitationals to open the season instead changed course and worked the phone lines to arrange last-minute triangular meets with teams in their immediate area.

Yep, the global pandemic that has now stretched into its sixth month changed the normal routine for the new cross country season.

But, ah, there were smiles. Coaches grinned from ear to ear. Athletes talked about how much they missed competing. Even some news reporters expressed their excitement for being able to get back to work.

When they finally got back onto the course, Kansas' runners put on a pretty nice show, too.

Taylor Briggs of Chapman, a three-time class 4A state champion, looks better than ever. She rolled to victory at the Abilene Invitational on Thursday with a career-best time of 18:28.7. Briggs won by nearly five minutes as she kicked off a quest to become just the sixth four-time state champion in Kansas cross country history.

At the same meet, Sacred Heart's girls pulled off a sixth-runner tiebreaker for the team title over Southeast of Saline, the class 3A state runner-up a year ago, even though Southeast of Saline was without its top three runners.

But Sacred Heart's win was indicative of a new dynamic in team racing during the regular season. The Knights started in wave 2 of the girls' varsity race, placing them in the role of chaser for much of the race. While Southeast of Saline, which started in wave 1, reached the finish line first, Sacred Heart's net times lifted them just past their rival from across the county.

Southeast of Saline's boys rode that same wave to an impressive performance. Running from wave 2, the two-time defending 3A state champions scored a near-perfect 17 points to win by 57 points over Goessel. Junior Dylan Sprecker, last year's individual state champ, led teammates Dominic Jackson and Luke Gleason who caught every runner but one from the first wave.

In Manhattan, Emporia's Treyson True registered a huge PR on a course that is stingy for giving up 16 minute times. True, a senior who was second in the class 5A state meet last year, clocked 15:38.6 for a 30 second victory over Manhattan's Daniel Harkin, the 2019 class 6A state champion and Kansas Gatorade Runner of the Year.

Just like Briggs, the impressive win was a career-best for True, run on one of the most hilly courses he will take on this season.

Another of class 5A's best runners this year looked pretty good, too. DeSoto senior Carson Sturdy out-dueled a strong field to win a triangular with St. Thomas Aquinas and Mill Valley. Sturdy clocked a solid time of 16:08.5 to win over Aquinas' Logan Seger (16:20.7), Tommy Hazen (16:30.8) and Ashton Higgerson (16:48.2). Mill Valley's Aj Vega placed fifth in 17:10.2.

Girard's Cormick Logue, Hayden's Tanner Newkirk and Buhler's Tanner Lindahl kicked off the 2020 campaign much the same way they ended the 2019 season; that is, they looked very good.

Logue won the class 4A state title last year in a back-and-forth battle with Newkirk and Lindahl, the 2018 class 4A state champ. On Saturday, Logue kicked off the new season by winning the Labette Invitational (16:12.5). Newkirk also was impressive, winning a triangular at Shawnee Heights in 16:09.3, outrunning Heights' Kory Sutton (16:26.4) and Topeka West's Lenny Njoroge (16:35.8). And in Great Bend, Lindahl beat a field of mostly 5A and 6A runners with a time of 16:33.5.

Does anybody doubt that these three are on a collision course again?

Some other notable meet winners on the boys' side this week include Wyndom Giefer of Trego Community at the Norton Invitational (16:20, more than 30 seconds faster than he ran to win the same race last year); Erik Enriquez of Kapaun Mt. Carmel at the Andover Invitational (16:11.5); and Ryan Heline of Smoky Valley at his team's home meet (16:38.0).

Among Kansas girls, Lincoln senior Jaycee Vath opened her quest for a third consecutive class 1A title in fine fashion, winning the Tescott Invitational in a time of 20:11. She beat a pretty good trio from Bennington in Ashlyn Harbaugh (20:46.3), Peyton Piepho (21:40.3) and Taryn Paulino (22:48.7).

Vath is pretty well-known on the Kansas distance running scene. She was the state runner-up as a freshman, before winning the class 1A state title the past two years.

Manhattan's Jenna Keeley ran more than a minute and half faster than she's ever run on her home course, winning in 19:18.4. Keeley, a junior who was 20th at the class 6A state meet a year ago, had the second fastest time among Kansas girls on the first weekend of the season.

Defending class 5A state champion Hope Jackson, now a junior at Bishop Carroll, put up a business-like 19:29.9 to win by more than a minute at the Great Bend Invitational. Leah Bentley of Buhler was the runner-up (20:41.4). Bishop Carroll had five runners in the top ten and a two minute pack time to win the team title.

Other notable meet winners among Kansas girls this weekend include Lara Murdock of Colby at the Goodland Invitational (19:45.7); Erin Hammeke of Ellinwood at the Smoky Valley Invitational (19:46); and Alexa Rios of Maize South at the Andover Invitational (19:53.9). Maize South had eight of the top 13 to easily win the girls' Division II team title at Andover.