No Rim Rock, No Problem: Kansas Stars Shine

Watch Hayden's Tanner Newkirk out-last Manhattan's Daniel Harkin to the windy finish of the Sunflower Showdown in T-Town. Girard's Cormick Logue follows in third. (Kansas MileSplit video by Alex Walters)

This was supposed to be that week in Kansas cross country.

You know, the week of the Rim Rock Classic. The week when a whole bunch of the best runners from the Midwest meet many of the best in Kansas for an old-fashion showdown across the hills and dales of Bob Timmons' farm north of Lawrence.

For cross country fans, watching the Rim Rock Classic - and its various divisions -- is a jolt of electricity, an awesome mid-season test for the best runners and teams in a seven-state region.

COVID-19 put the kabash on this year's Rim Rock Classic, but as we learned in Week 4 of the Kansas cross country season, it didn't preclude some of the best from getting together for some really great races.

It started last Tuesday in Gypsum at the Southeast of Saline Invitational where three reigning state champions went head-to-head-to-head in the girls varsity race.

First, a little history here: In 2017, Taylor Briggs, Jentrie Alderson, Jaycee Vath and Heidi Grimmett teamed to win the 4 X 800 relay at the USA Track and Field Hershey National Junior Olympic championships in Lawrence.

Left to right, Jaycee Vath, Taylor Briggs, Jentrie Alderson and Heidi Grimmet at the 2017 USATF Hershey Junior Olympic championships. (Photo courtesy of Huey Counts)

Fast forward to the 2019 Kansas cross country state championships when Briggs (Chapman) won the class 4A state title; Alderson (Southeast of Saline) won the class 3A state title; and Vath (Lincoln) won the class 1A state title.

Tuesday was the first time all of them had been on the course together as Kansas cross country champions. Briggs normally would have been running at Rim Rock, so her availability was the key to making this matchup possible.

At the Southeast of Saline Invitational, Briggs did what she has done at every meet this season - and for the better part of four seasons - in dismantling the course and the field. The three-time state champion -- who is an overwhelming favorite to become just the sixth four-time state champ in Kansas history - sprinted from the start and won by nearly two-minutes in a career-best time of 18:07.1.

Alderson held off Vath to place second in 20:03.3. Vath's time was 20:12.1. Minneapolis freshman Maddy Krueger showed she could be the next to join this line of thoroughbreds; she placed fourth in 20:38.

Close friends Briggs, Alderson and Vath get together after their Sept. 22 matchup. (Photo courtesy of Huey Counts)

While Briggs left no doubt about first place in the girls' race, there certainly was high drama in the boys' varsity race. Ryan Heline of Smoky Valley picked up his fourth straight win of the season when he rallied in the last few yards of the 5K race to nip Southeast of Saline's Luke Gleason at the finish line.

The FinishLynx photo of the finish appears to show Gleason's head breaking the finish line first, but Heline's torso beat the rest of Gleason's body across the line.

A finish line photo of the boys varsity race shows Smoky Valley's Ryan Heline (foreground in white jersey) just barely getting his torso across the line before Southeast of Saline's Luke Gleason (background, in blue). FinishLynx photo courtesy of Ben Sigle

Both were given an identical time: 16:40.30.

Southeast of Saline, currently running without defending class 3A state champion Dylan Sprecker, won the meet with 39 points while last year's class 1A state champs Berean Academy - which is now a 2A school - placed second at 48. Smoky Valley kept them honest, finishing third with 54.

Rim Rock 'Lite'?

A meet that came together just about two weeks ago stole the show in the fourth week of the Kansas cross country season.

Washburn Rural coach Matt Swedlund - whose boys team won the class 6A state title a year ago - rallied several of his coaching buddies to bring their teams to his home course for some dream matchups in a meet that was dubbed the Sunflower Showdown at T-Town (Topeka).

What resulted was an all star field in the boys varsity race that included a half dozen sub-16:00 runners, and nearly two dozen that could run sub-17:00. Those included:

* Manhattan's Daniel Harkin, the 2019 Kansas Gatorade Runner of the Year, and teammates Sean Anderson, Max Bowyer and Ben Mosier.

* St. Thomas Aquinas, the six-time defending class 5A state champions, led by senior Tommy Hazen and juniors Logan Seger and Ashton Higgerson.

* Girard's Cormick Logue, the 2019 state champion in class 4A, who has run Kansas' fastest time this season, 15:17.

* Hayden's Tanner Newkirk, the state runner-up to Logue last year, who had reeled off three straight wins heading into the Saturday meet.

* Emporia's Treyson True, who clocked 15:38 earlier this season and had beaten Harkin in the season-opener Sept. 5 in Manhattan. True was the state runner-up in class 5A last year.

* Lawrence Free State, which entered the week as the No. 1 ranked team in class 6A, keyed by a strong pack of juniors Ben Shryock and Jack Keathley-Helms, and seniors Christopher Stone and Ethan Sharp.

Most of those runners would have been competing at the Rim Rock Classic this week, but instead put on their own version of a Kansas throwdown. Call it Rim Rock Lite, if you will.

While temperatures were expected to top 90 degrees on Saturday, the heat was a non-factor in the mid-morning race. Instead, the runners dealt with steady south winds and gusts that topped 25 mph.

It didn't seem to matter. The times were fast and the competition was fierce. 19 runners broke 17:00, and five went under 16:00. In this week's Honor Roll of Kansas' fastest times, the top seven boys' times came from this meet, as well as 15 of the top 17 (as of results reported by Saturday night).

And the race for the individual win lived up to the hype. A steady pack of nearly 10 runners hovered near the lead for about two miles. Shortly after, Logue, Harkin and Newkirk made their break.

Left to right, Manhattan's Daniel Harkin, Emporia's Treyson True, Girard's Cormick Logue and St. Thomas Aquinas' Tommy Hazen lead an all-star pack of Kansas runners midway through the Sunflower Showdown in T-Town Saturday. (Kansas Milesplit photo by Alex Walters)

With just under 400 meters to the finish, Logue took a nasty fall. Harkin and Newkirk charged on. With 150 meters to go, Harkin surged and built a three meter lead on Newkirk.

But in the last 80 meters, Newkirk put on the after-burners to catch and pull away from Harkin for his first career victory over his Centennial League foe.

Newkirk's time was 15:40.7 while Harkin crossed at 15:41.9. Logue recovered to finish third in 15:47.8, while Shryock was fourth at 15:53.9 and Topeka West's Lenny Njoroge, just a sophomore, nabbed fifth in 15:57.3.

(Note: The livestream of the entire boys varsity race at the Sunflower Showdown is available online (click here). Logue's fall can be seen at 14:58; Harkin's surge at 15:18; and Newkirk's kick at 15:30)

Shryock's finish led Lawrence Free State to the team title, scoring 44 points to St. Thomas Aquinas' 48. Manhattan was third at 56. St. Thomas Aquinas had beaten Free State at the Maple Leaf Invitational in Baldwin one week earlier, so the season series between the No. 1 ranked teams in class 5A and 6A stands at 1-1.

Free State's five included Shryock, Stone (16:10.4, eighth); Keathley-Helms (16:17.4, tenth), Sharp (16:31.3, 12th); and Brock Cordova (16:56.6, 19th). Aquinas had top 10 finishes from Hazen (16:00.1, sixth), Seger (16:04.2, seventh) and Higgerson (16:11.5, ninth).

In the girls varsity race, Manhattan's Jenna Keeley made it three wins in three races, running solo for most of the way en route to a time of 19:11.6, the third best time in the state this week. Washburn Rural's Madeline Carter placed second in 19:35.2, leading four of her teammates in the top six - Sydney Laster (20:08.1, fourth); Khloi Bird (20:08.8, fifth); and Keely Wagner (20:10.0, sixth).

Washburn Rural, now ranked third in class 6A, edged Centennial League rival Manhattan 40-45 for the girls team title.

Around Kansas...

The rest of the schedule across the state was fairly light this week as many teams are either struggling to find meets, or simply opting to rest their forces as they head into the final month of the season.

Some other highlights from Week Four meets include:

* Serenity Larson of Dodge City (21:10) and Craig Labrue of Winfield (17:03) topped the girls and boys fields at the McPherson Invitational. Both of their teams won titles, as well. Larson's teammate, Norma Rodriguez, placed second in 21:23.

* Stanton County's Chesney Peterson picked up a pair of wins this week, first winning on Tuesday at the Ulysses Tiger Invitational (19:44), then beating the field at her team's home meet on Saturday (19:11.1). Her time on Saturday was the second fastest reported in Kansas this week. Her winning margin in both races was nearly two minutes over second place.

* Also in Ulysses, Lakin sophomore Lawson Beymer won the boys varsity race in 17:55, edging Stanton County's Golub Kamryn (18:06). Garden City's boys won an exciting battle for the team title, scoring 50 to edge Lakin (52) and class 2A defending state champion Stanton County (54). Kamryn rebounded to win his home invitational on Saturday (18:12).

* A pair of defending state champs took care of business at the Bishop Carroll Quint. Buhler junior Tanner Lindahl, the class 4A state champ in 2018 and third place finisher last year, won Saturday in 16:08. And in the girls varsity race, Bishop Carroll junior Hope Jackson clocked 19:34 to beat Andover's Elizabeth Vetter, who finished in 19:55. Maize put up a 40 second pack time to win the boys varsity team title with 39 points; two-time class 4A state champion Buhler was second with 56.

* Shawnee Heights freshman Jackson Esquibel, who burned up the middle school scene a year ago, got his first high school win this weekend. He topped the field at the Shawnee Heights quadrangular, clocking 16:54. Bethany Druse of Seaman won the girls race in 20:35, leading a 1 through 4 finish by the Vikings.

* Trevor Pentlin of Jefferson County North, the state runner-up in class 2A last year, won the Nemaha Central Invitational in 17:55, topping Hiawatha's Justin Hodge (18:18.4). Pentlin is the top returner in class 2A this season; Hodge is a three-time state medalist in class 3A.

* Alfonso Rubio of Mission Valley out-leaned Nolan Redeker of Olpe to win the Jason McKinney Memorial, hosted by Alma-Wabaunsee. Rubio was timed in 18:03.16 while Redeker - fifth place in the class 1A state meet a year ago - clocked 18:03.34. Macy Smith of Olpe won the girls race in 22:26.66. Rock Creek's girls put four runners in the top 10 and scored 28, beating Wabaunsee by one point.

* Alex Meister of Labette County (18:00) and Lily Judd of West Franklin (22:23) were the individual winners at the West Franklin Invitational. Blake Pierce of Lacrosse (18:10) and Addie Hoehme of Pratt (24:02.6) grabbed the individual wins at the Abby Trapp-Prescott X-C Classic in Larned.

Looking ahead...

This could be the highlight race you're looking at next week: Baldwin will host its annual home meet, and Girard's Logue is expected to get another shot at Hayden's Newkirk. The girls' meet will feature the powerful Baldwin squad -- ranked No. 1 in class 4A this season -- against some of the best teams and runners from the Kansas City area.

Baldwin always produces fast times and it will be intriguing to see how this week's meet pans out.