Blue Valley Northwest's Riley Beach, shown here en route to winning the Eastern Kansas League championship in 2017, hopes to get back to the top of the state ranks on Saturday.
It is often said that success is rarely linear. Life's path typically is not straight, and surely the road in cross country and any other number of sports is wrought with speed bumps. Adversity is usually part of the game.
Riley Beach's four years at Blue Valley Northwest is a case study in twists and turns. As a freshman in 2017, she was a surprise winner at the class 6A state cross country championships, clocking 18:25 on Rim Rock Farm's brutally-tough course and launching what appeared to be a career filled with success.
But injuries side-tracked Beach for the next two years. In 2018, she fell to 13th at state, and then missed the meet altogether in 2019.
That leads us to the present-day where Beach has strung together five victories this season and heads into Saturday's state championship race with the No. 1 time in class 6A girls - 18:03.5 at the Gardner-Edgerton Invitational on Sept. 19.
She's also recently won the tough Eastern Kansas League (18:28) and the
Shawnee Mission regional (18:15). A win on Saturday would put a nice bookend to
her four-year career and -- if there was such an award -- would cement her standing as Comeback Runner of the Year.
Beach heads up a class 6A girls field that is loaded with talent. Through this past weekend, 15 Kansas girls have dipped under 19:00 for the season; 12 of those are in the Kansas City area, which seems to be on an upswing in the 6A girls division.
With the 5A/6A state meet moving to Augusta's Four Mile Creek Resort on Saturday, we are likely to see a fast race. Rather than tromp across Rim Rock Farm's steep hills, this year's state meet will be on a flat course with only a couple up-slopes to test the field.
Including Beach, those with top times this season include Shawnee Mission South sophomore Hannah Gibson (18:09.4), Olathe North freshman Anjali Hocker-singh (18:12.2), Olathe West freshman Kate Miller (18:15.7), and Shawnee Mission Northwest sophomore Paige Mullen (18:17.8).
Because Kansas' biggest schools make up the 6A division, many of those have not been traveling far due to COVID-19 restrictions set by their districts. In normal years, we would have seen a broader field of contenders from across the state competing against each other in bigger meets, such as the Rim Rock Classic in Lawrence. Saturday's state meet will be the first - and only - time this season that we will see the best across the state competing on the same day and same course.
That's also the case on the boys' side where Manhattan senior Daniel Harkin will try to hold on to the state title he won a year ago. Harkin, the 2019 Gatorade Kansas Runner of the Year, enters with the fifth best time in the division this season, 15:35.8.
Harkin has not run against any of the Kansas City runners this season, but there is a common foe that helps to paint the picture in the class 6A boys chase: Lawrence Free State.
The Firebirds are ranked No. 1 in class 6A, having beaten all of the top contenders this season - Olathe South, Gardner-Edgerton, Manhattan and Shawnee Mission South among them. Junior Ben Shryock (15:30.2) and senior Christopher Stone (15:32.2) lead the way, having posted the top two times in class 6A this season. Quenton Walion of Gardner-Edgerton (15:32.3) and Shane Mullen of Shawnee Mission Northwest (15:32.9) have been right on their heels.
But Harkin has beaten Shryock and Stone head-to-head this season, and also has wins over Girard's Cormick Logue (tops in class 3A), Hayden's Tanner Newkirk (a top contender for the class 4A title) and St. Thomas Aquinas' Logan Seger and Tommy Hazen (who lead the state contenders in class 5A).
Say this much: This is a race that will be thrilling to watch.
Lawrence Free State seems to have a firm hold on the favorite's role in the class 6A boys division. The squad's only loss this season was to six-time class 5A state champion St. Thomas Aquinas, but the Firebirds did win that season series, 2-1. Manhattan was just 12 points back of Free State at the Sunflower Showdown in late September, but otherwise no other class 6A team has been within 30 points of the squad this season.
Olathe West enters state as the favorite for the 6A girls title. The squad is undefeated this season and won the Olathe North regional last week with six runners in the top eleven: freshmen Kate Miller (second) and Bree Newport (fourth); and sophomores Aubree Blackman (sixth), Charis Robinson (seventh) and Paige Baker (11th); and junior Ava Wardlaw (tenth).
That meet, though, was basically a dual meet with Olathe North, which finished just five points behind. Hocker Singh won the race in 18:16.6, leading four Olathe North runners in the top nine: juniors Kaylee Tobaben (third) and Lexie Dockstader (eighth) and freshman Shea Johnson (ninth).
The state meet does seem to be a rematch between those two schools for the big gold trophy, though Blue Valley Northwest - led by Beach - and Shawnee Mission East could get themselves in the mix. Manhattan and Washburn Rural have a shot at a podium spot, as well.
Class 6A State Meet at a Glance
Saturday, Oct. 31 at Four Mile Creek Resort, Augusta
Boys Start: 12 p.m.
Girls Start: 12:35 p.m.
Defending team champions: Mill Valley* (girls); Washburn Rural (boys)
* Mill Valley is now a class 5A school
2020 Kansas MileSplit Predictions
Boys individual champion: Daniel Harkin, Manhattan
Girls individual champion: Riley Beach, Blue Valley Northwest
Boys team champion: Lawrence Free State
Girls team champion: Olathe West