Beach, Hocker Singh Stage Class 6A Thriller

Olathe North freshman Anjali Hocker Singh (303) leads Shawnee Mission Northwest's Paige Mullen (379) and Blue Valley Northwest's Riley Beach late in the class 6A girls state championship race. (Kansas MileSplit photo by Pat Melgares)

One champion said good-bye, and another one said hello.

That was the scene that unfolded Saturday during the closing moments and shortly after the last runners had finished Saturday's class 6A girls state championship race at the Four Mile Creek Resort near Augusta.

All of Kansas got a glimpse of the future of this division when Olathe North freshman Anjali Hocker Singh broke away from a pack of three in the last quarter mile to win the individual state title in 18:39.16.

She edged the pre-race favorite, Riley Beach of Blue Valley Northwest, who finished in 18:42.25.

In Hocker Singh, perhaps Beach saw a little bit of herself. She was the class 6A state champion as a freshman in 2017, but battled injures for the next two years - finishing 13th at state in 2018 and missing the meet entirely in 2019.

But Beach had the fastest time in class 6A entering this meet, 18:03 at the Gardner Edgerton Invitational in mid-September. She had reeled off five straight wins this season, including Eastern Kansas League and regional titles the past two weeks.

Beach's remarkable comeback this season was not lost on fans of the sport, and it certainly would have been fitting had she capped her high school cross country career with one more win.

Instead, Hocker Singh nabbed the 2020 state title with a kick up the final hill leading to the finish. It was the third time in the past four years that the class 6A title went to a freshman: Mill Valley's Katie Schwartzkopf in 2018 and Beach in 2017 were the other two.

"I feel really good because at the beginning of this year, I was not great at running at all," Hocker Singh said. "But now, I've trained so much harder and I've gotten a lot better."

Minutes after the race, a smiling Beach found an exhausted Hocker Singh sitting in a chair. After congratulating and hugging the freshman, Beach whispered into Hocker Singh's ear. One can only imagine what she must have said, but judging from the smiles on both girls' faces, it was certainly words of encouragement.

One champion saying good-bye, and another one saying hello....

It was a fitting end to the class 5A/6A state championships on Saturday, held on a windy day with gusts reaching 20 mph during the 5A races, and 30 mph during the 6A races. "It was really hard (running in the wind)," Hocker Singh said, "but my coach always tells us to see our challenges as opportunities. So I thought this was an opportunity to handle it better than anyone else in the race."

Saturday's windy blasts sure didn't sour the competition. The 6A girls' team title came down to a single point, with pre-meet favorite Olathe West hanging on to beat Blue Valley Northwest and Olathe North. Olathe West scored 59, Blue Valley Northwest was the runner-up with 60 and Olathe North nabbed third place with 63.

No one else was within 50 points of those three teams.

Sophomore Aubree Blackman led Olathe West with a fifth place finish (19:31.77) while freshman Kate Miller (14th, 19:43.56), junior Ava Wardlaw (15th, 19:46.53) and freshman Bree Newport (17th, 19:50.37) also won state medals.

Sophomores Charis Robinson (21st, 20:05.11) and Paige Baker (22nd, 20:07.13) and senior Jenna Mullen (31st, 20:20.30) were the team's other runners.

In case you missed that, Olathe West's 1-5 pack time was a nifty 34 seconds, and the gap between 1-7 was 49 seconds. And six of the seven on this year's state championship team will be back next year.

Blue Valley Northwest certainly was game for the fight, however. After Beach's runner-up finish, the squad got medal-winning performances from senior Carolyn Thurlby (11th, 19:36.11), and juniors Cecilia Fisher (16th, 19:47.06) and Alexis Liess (18th, 19:50.42). Freshman Eliese Thurlby placed 26th (20:11.17) to close out the squad's scoring.

Shawnee Mission Northwest's Paige Mullen hung with Hocker Singh and Beach for most of the race before settling for third place in 18:59.33. Manhattan's Jenna Keeley was in the lead pack for just over two miles, then beat everyone else to finish fourth with a time of 19:12.05.

Seventeen of the 20 medalists in the class 6A girls race are underclassmen.

In class 6A boys, Manhattan's Daniel Harkin - the 2019 Gatorade Kansas Runner of the Year - repeated as state champion. It hardly came with a fight.

The pack played it conservative through the first 800 meters, a nasty straightaway into the teeth of the south wind. But not long after the field snaked its way through a right hand turn, Harkin took over the pace.

Nobody followed. Instead, the group seemed content to let Harkin do his thing and fight it out for second place. Harkin built the lead to as much as 200 meters and cruised to victory in 16:17.18 - his slowest time of the season.

"Yesterday (during a shake-out run), I thought, 'oh my gosh, this is going to be a sub-15:00 5K,'" Harkin said. "But today was another story. It was totally different than it was yesterday with the was a different race, for sure."

While Harkin took off, a mighty battle was brewing in the chase pack. Gardner-Edgerton's Quenton Walion, whose season-best of 15:32.30 was the third best in class 6A, headed up a group that included Olathe Northwest's Logan Read, Shawnee Mission Northwest's Shane Mullen, Olathe South's Riley Vandaveer, Blue Valley Northwest's Andrew Mason, Blue Valley West's Graham Miller and three Lawrence Free State runners - junior Ben Shryock, and seniors Ethan Sharp and Christopher Stone.

Nobody made a move until the final hill into the finish stretch, when Walion won a mad dash to the finish to claim state runner-up in 16:35.96. He was followed by Read (16:38.00), Sharp (16:39.49) and Mullen (16:40.18).

Lawrence Free State got its best match from a 6A school this season, but still emerged victorious, winning the team title with 49 points. Manhattan was the runner-up at 57, and Gardner-Edgerton made the podium with 101 points - edging Olathe South by three points.

Lawrence Free State won every meet but one this season, finishing second to class 5A state champion St. Thomas Aquinas at the Baldwin Invitational in mid-September. Free State, however, won the season series against Aquinas, 2-1.

After Sharp, Free State's scoring five were Shryock (seventh, 16:44.73), Stone (tenth, 16:49.19), junior Jack Keathley-Helms (14th, 16:55.61) and senior Brock Cordova (33rd, 17:23.15). Stone and Cordova ran the last half mile with one shoe missing.

Manhattan's only other medalist was junior Ben Mosier, who placed 13th in 16:55.30. Junior Max Bowyer (21st, 17:06.23) and freshman Ethan Bryant (22nd, 17:08.55) just missed out on the medal stand.