For about nine weeks, Kansas Class 6A cross country has been
like a snowball barreling downhill, picking up momentum to a giant finish.
That may be the best analogy to describe what we're about to
see at Rim Rock Farm on Saturday.
Since early September, the best 6A teams and individuals
have squared off regularly, providing much excitement and intrigue along the
way. Normally, one or two teams emerge as favorites for the state title, but
this year, a half dozen teams are in the mix in boys and girls divisions.
Last week's regional meets indicate that Class 6A runners are peaking at the right time. On the boys' side, 48 runners finished in 17:00 or better. There
were six girls under 19:00, 30 under 20:00 and 47 at 20:15 or better.
A year ago, the state meet was highlighted by a thrilling
upset by Olathe North for the boys' state title, while Manhattan, Lawrence Free
State and Shawnee Mission North finished one point apart for the top three
spots in the girls' division.
Expect similar drama this year. Last year's top three teams
in the girls' race are back and running well again, and they're joined by
Shawnee Mission Northwest, Olathe North and Blue Valley North as title
Lawrence Free State's girls are the pre-meet favorite. In
back-to-back weeks, they scored impressive victories over Shawnee Mission
Northwest at the Sunflower League championships, and over Manhattan at the
The Firebirds are led by two-time state champion Emily Venters, whose 17:56 was the top time out of regionals last week; and Kiran Cordes, who clocked 18:39 for the state's fourth best time out of regionals. Of
the state title contenders, Free State seems to have the best 1-2 punch.
Molly Born, the 2015 individual state champ, leads a surging
Shawnee Mission Northwest squad. She has run 17:10 this season, and is
currently No. 19 on the Saucony Flo50 U.S. rankings. She is a strong favorite
to defend her title.
Reigning state champion Manhattan, Shawnee Mission North,
Olathe North and Blue Valley North each have a frontrunner capable of finishing
in the top 5, then 2 through 5 runners who can finish between 19:30 and 20:00.
Therein lies the key to the girls' state championship this
year. The team that is able to win the finish line sprints and get its five
runners to the finish line under 20:00 is probably going to take home the big
It's a similar story in the race for the boys state title.
The magic window for the boys might be 16:20 to 16:40, which is where most of
the contenders' two through five runners have finished. That 20
seconds may be a key timeframe to determine the 6A boys championship.
Olathe East and Manhattan have been in that window better than the
others to this point in the season. Olathe East has a pair of frontrunners -
Will Tindall (who won the Blue Valley West regional in 15:56) and Ben Kahnk -
that give them a slight edge on the rest of the field.
Manhattan has been the better pack team this season,
routinely running within 30-40 seconds for its first five. The Indians have
three runners capable of finishing in the top 10, and two others that can be in
the top 25. Among the top teams, they are probably the most capable of getting
all five runners in under 16:50.
Two teams I've liked since the start of the season are
Garden City and Dodge City. It certainly has not hurt either of those teams
that they regularly run against each other, and have thus made each other
better throughout the season.
They fought to a one-point decision at the Wichita East
regional last Saturday, Garden City holding off Dodge City's 19-second pack
time to win 40-41.
They may run on the flat plains of western Kansas, but they
have often run well on the hills of Rim Rock; Garden City's Marcus Tula, in
fact, placed fifth and is the top returner from last year's state meet. Dodge
City won the 6A boys championship in 1981; Garden City has never won a state
title in cross country.
Both teams can hang with any of the other contenders for
three runners; the key for them will be moving their fourth and fifth runners
up in the pack.
Nobody is talking too big about Olathe North's boys again
this year, and that could be dangerous for the other teams. This is a team that
kind of snuck up on the field last year, putting together a great pack effort
to capture the state title. They've followed a similar late-season pattern this
year and they're certainly still capable: they have seven runners who have run
17:07 or better this season.
Olathe South is a team to watch because they've got four
runners with season bests in the mid-16:00's. They have struggled to find a
consistent fifth runner, however, which has kept them from the state's elite so
Individually, Olathe East's Tindall is the pre-meet favorite
and Olathe North's Brian Beach - the top freshman at state last year - heads
the rest of the group. The chase pack is probably going to be pretty big, as
about a dozen runners have put up times between 16:10 and 16:25 this season.
In the girls' division, Wichita North's Gabriela Reyna (18:26 at regionals last week) will challenge Born and Venters for the individual title. In addition to Free State's Cordes, 6A girls who ran under 19:00 at last week's regionals are Manhattan's Cara Melgares (18:40) and Blue Valley North's Lily Strauss (18:58).