For a brief moment after the race, the Free State girls cross country team was unsure how it finished.
But as soon as the news came that they had won a Class 6A state championship, the Firebirds began hollering and hugging each other. It marked the fourth straight first-place finish for FSHS this season, including three golds in as many postseason races.
“It’s hard to do what they did,” coach Steve Heffernan said. “Because you don’t see too many teams win league, regionals and state. Because that pressure builds each time you go out. I’m really happy with how they ran.”
Free State girls XC wins state title
Free State senior Emily Venters finished second at the state meet for the second straight year to lead the Firebirds to their first Class 6A girls title since 2013. Kiran Cordes (sixth), Abigail Zenger (12th), Julia Larkin (16th), Emma Hertig (28th) Erin Fagan (70th) and Erin Liston (79th) helped the Firebirds clinch the team championship.
Senior Emily Venters anchored the team to its first state title since 2013, with a second-place finish in Saturday’s 6A girls race at Rim Rock Farm. Venters clocked a time of 18:09.9 — two seconds shy of her best course time — to earn the silver in the final race of her cross country career.
Prior to Saturday, Venters had already sealed a pair of state titles on her prolific resume. But it was the team crown that will leave a lasting memory for her.
“It’s so awesome,” Venters said. “It’s never meant so much more to me than to have a team (title). This year that was my goal from the start. Just to get my team all wrapped around each other to go out with a win.”
After finishing second the last two seasons at the state meet, Free State clinched first by a sizable margin. Five different runners finished in the top-28, earning 59 total points. Shawnee Mission North was the next closest with 87 points.
The top three finishers for the Firebirds were all seniors. Kiran Cordes ran a 19:29.5 to seal seventh place. Abigail Zenger, who started cross country last year, took 12th with a time of 19:49.0.
“The one person that surprised me the most all season was Abby Zenger,” Hefferan said. “Because a year ago she was a JV runner and just snuck on our state team. This year, she ends up placing 12th overall. That’s a big reason why we won today.”
A pair of sophomores rounded out the Firebirds’ top five. Julia Larkin ran a 20:04.4 to finish 16th while Emma Hertig placed 28th with a mark of 20:30.4.
On the boys side, Free State finished seventh as a team with three runners crossing the finish line close to one another. Junior Avant Edwards posted the highest finish at 26th while junior Jared Hicks and sophomore Landon Sloan placed 30th and 31st, respectively.
The trio of runners propelled the Firebirds up the leaderboards, as they defeated three teams — Shawnee Mission Northwest, Shawnee Mission East and Olathe South — that they had lost to in every other meet this year
“I think this last meet really showed who we were,” Edwards said. “We pushed each other more. They stayed on me a little bit more and we did the best we could.”
State debuts for LHS
Freshman Anna Dewitt and junior Carson Jumping Eagle each made their first appearances in the state meet as the lone qualifiers for Lawrence High.
Dewitt stayed with the pack for the first mile but ultimately fell to a 57th-place finish with a time of 21:17.6. She acknowledged that her mental toughness was put to the test against the veteran competitors as the lone Lions runner.
“I’m just glad I got the chance to go to state,” Dewitt said. “It was weird because it was just me. My basketball teammates and my cross country teammates came and made posters for me. It helped calm me down.”
Jumping Eagle also noted the different feel of being the only runner from his school in the boys 6A race. Jumping Eagle logged a 61st-place finish with a time of 17:52.5.
“I’m proud I made it,” Jumping Eagle said. “It was different because I didn’t have my teammates to run with. I just tried to run my own race. It was challenging.”
Saturday at Rim Rock Farm
Team scores: 1. Free State, 59; 2. SM North, 87; 3. Manhattan, 99; 4. SM Northwest, 119; 5. BV North, 123; 6. Olathe North, 134; 7. Topeka Washburn Rural, 189; 8. Wichita East, 192; 9. Wichita North, 204; 10. Olathe Northwest, 244; 11. Dodge City, 248; 12. Olathe East, 255.
FSHS results: 2. Emily Venters, 18:09.9; 7. Kiran Cordes, 19:29.5; 12. Abigail Zenger, 19.49.0; 16. Julia Larkin, 20:04.4; 28. Emma Hertig, 20:30.4; 70. Erin Fagan, 21:35.1; 79. Erin Liston, 21:50.3.
LHS results: 57. Anna Dewitt, 21:17.6.
Team scores: 1. Olathe east, 67; 2. Garden City, 119; 3. Manhattan, 125; 4. Dodge City, 139; 5. Olathe North, 145; 6. Topeka Washburn Rural, 154; 7. Free State, 157; 8. SM Northwest, 165; 9. SM East, 172; 10. Olathe South, 223; 11. SM South, 240; 12. Wichita East, 245.
FSHS results: 26. Avant Edwards, 17:13.8; 30. Jared Hicks, 17:19.4; 31. Landon Sloan, 17:21.1; 42. William Benkelman, 17:33.5; 60. Aidan Goertz, 17:52.4; 76. Charles Johnson, 18:05.2; 87. Grant Holmes, 18:15.7.
LHS results: 61. Carson Jumping Eagle, 17:52.5.