Opposites Attract: Class 6A a Study in Contrasts

Ben Shryock leads Lawrence Free State's bid to repeat as state champs in class 6A

If ever there was a study of contrasts in the outlook for one division of Kansas cross country, class 6A would be it.

Right or wrong, left or right, push or pull... Class 6A is an antonym waiting to happen.

You say "tom-ay-toe," I say "tom-ah-toe."

In class 6A girls, 9 of the top 10 and 16 of the top 20 finishers from last year's state meet are back for another go.

In class 6A boys, just 2 of the top 10 are back, and 7 of the top 20.

Whereas the top contenders for a team title in the girls division are filled with state medalists and runners with state experience, the boys' title contenders have a lot of question marks and open spots.

Defending class 6A girls champion Olathe West returns six runners from last year's team, and is the early favorite for a repeat trip to the top of the podium. The squad posted a 53 second pack time for its first six runners at last year's state meet, all finishing in the top 22 spots.

Aubree Blackman, now a junior, was fifth a year ago, while sophomore Kate Miller (14th), senior Ava Wardlaw (15th) and sophomore Bree Newport (17th) were also state medalists.

Olathe North, third at state last year, brings back its top 5 and 6 of its top 7. Manhattan, sixth a year ago, brings back its entire team. Shawnee Mission East, fourth in 2020, returns 5 of its top 7.

Blue Valley Northwest was the state runner-up in 2020, but is the one girls team that may have been hit the hardest by graduation. State cross country runner-up Riley Beach - who won the cross country title in 2017 and the 3200 meter title last spring - is gone, as well as Carolyn Thurlby, who was 11th at the state cross country meet a year ago.

Anjali Hocker Singh, who won state titles in cross country and 3200 meters as a freshman, heads up Olathe North's returners. Hocker Singh ran almost in anonymity through her league meet last year, then turned on the burners at regionals and state -- the first two wins of her high school career to that point.

By the time the track season rolled around, Hocker Singh was no longer a stranger on the state scene. In addition to her win in the 3200 meter run, she was the class 6A state runner-up for 800 and 1600 meters. She's the odds-on favorite to repeat as class 6A cross country champion this year.

But there's little room for error in the loaded class 6A girls field.

Paige Mullen of Shawnee Mission Northwest, now a junior, placed third at state last year. Hannah Gibson of Shawnee Mission South placed seventh at state, but beat Hocker Singh and Mullen for the Sunflower League title. Grace Meyer of Shawnee Mission East was sixth at state in cross country, but beat Hocker Singh for the state title at 800 meters in the spring.

Entering the 2021 season, there are 12 Kansas girls that have dipped under 19 minutes for 5000 meters during their career. Just five of those are seniors. This is a division that is loaded with talent, and the majority of it is young.

The earliest indication of where the top contenders in class 6A girls stand may come at early meets at Mill Valley (Sept. 11), Baldwin (Sept. 18) and the Rim Rock Classic (Sept. 25).

Some key returners for teams expected to challenge for the state title including junior Shea Johnson and senior Kaylee Tobaben of Olathe North; senior Jenna Keeley of Manhattan; senior Cecilia Fisher of Blue Valley Northwest; and Meyer of Shawnee Mission East.

Top boys' teams? That's a bit harder to figure out. It looks like a wide open race for the class 6A boys crowns entering the 2021 season.

Defending state champion Lawrence Free State returns just 2 of 5 from last year's team, though it certainly helps that one of those returners is Ben Shryock.

The senior is class 6A's top returning individual, with a career-best time of 15:30.2 to win the Sunflower League title a year ago. He was seventh in the state cross country meet, and ran a remarkable race to win the state 3200 meter title last spring.

Manhattan was the state runner-up in cross country in 2020, but that squad lost two-time state champion and Kansas Gatorade Runner of the Year Daniel Harkin to graduation. Manhattan does return three of its top five and 5 of 7. Gardner-Edgerton, third a year ago, returns just 2 of 5. Olathe South, fourth in 2020, returns just 3 of 7.

A team that could take advantage of the dearth of returners: Blue Valley North. That squad had just one state medalist a year ago - Michael Mayo in 19th place - but the squad returns 5 of 7 from a sophomore-heavy unit.

Shawnee Mission East scores well on Kansas MileSplit's virtual rankings for 2021 - landing in third place - but has to be thought of as a mystery team right now. The squad did not have a team at state last year, and no individuals in the top 20. Let's see how that one plays out.

Aside from Shryock, the top boys in class 6A entering the season include Andrew Mason of Blue Valley Northwest (eighth at state a year ago), Aiden Reyna of Olathe West, Josh Caldwell of Olathe North and Jack Keathley Helms of Lawrence Free State.