Free State boys cross-country claims another win behind balanced effort
photo by: Chance Parker
Baldwin — Free State’s top cross-country runners wasted little time after finishing the boys race, in which all five athletes ended up inside the top five as individuals on Saturday at the Baldwin Golf Course.
Junior Ben Shryock, senior Christopher Stone, senior Ethan Sharp, junior Jack Keathley-Helms and senior Brock Cordova crossed the finish line and immediately ran as a group back toward the track. They proceeded to cheer on the rest of the FSHS boys cross-country squad, which locked up its fourth varsity win in five meets this year.
And that sequence highlighted what makes the Firebirds (No. 1 in Class 6A) so special this season.
“That team chemistry really helps our performance in competition,” said Shryock, who won the event with a time of 16:24.16. “That’s what we take importance in. Teamwork and just working together, allowing everyone to be a part of the team. That just means a lot to us and our program.”
The perfect example of that team camaraderie wasn’t the five individuals finishing in order in the top five, but rather what transpired in the final moments leading up to the last runner crossing the finish line.
Many members of the FSHS boys cross-country program had joined the original quintet toward the end of the race. They all then ran down the hill during the final stretch along with sophomore Max Owens, cheering him on as he crossed the finish line to end the competition for the day.
Owens finished in 62nd place with a time of 28:36.82, though it was the first time he completed a 5,000-meter run in a competition. It was a culmination of all the hard work that Owens put into building up his stamina, and his teammates pushed him every step of the way.
“We just want to make sure everyone gets a chance to run,” Stone said. “We are varsity, but we make sure before our workouts that we get in like (a) two or three mile run with Max. We’ve really been working with him to make sure he can run, and I think that’s really good as a whole team.”
The Firebirds finished first by a comfortable margin on Saturday, with all five of their top runners running within 36 seconds of each other.
Stone finished with a time of 16:28.63 to claim runner-up. Sharp placed third with a 16:33.47, while Keathley-Helms took fourth with a 16:46.01. Cordova claimed fifth with a mark of 17:00.80.
“It is definitely huge that our team is so close,” Sharp said. “Nobody cares about who beats who. All that matters in the end is how many points is by your team and how many points is by the team after you. This team-first mentality has really helped everyone out a lot.”
However, that type of mindset wasn’t always natural for the Firebirds. They actually took a good hard look in the mirror after finishing fifth at the state meet last season, despite the team having state title aspirations.
“We all wanted to compete and kind of beat each other at practice and beat each other in races,” Shryock said. “It worked alright until it got too much. I think last year we had a realization that we didn’t perform as well as we wanted to at the state meet.”
“I think this year we came in and took all the pressure off,” he added. “We just really wanted to work together as a team.”
A lot of that really started in the offseason, when the team had to stay connected virtually through a pandemic-adjusted summer schedule. Members of the team were eventually able to do some socially-distanced training together, which has allowed FSHS to hit the ground running this year.
“This is the best we’ve ever run in any of the years that we’ve been here,” Sharp said. “I definitely think it is everyone working together.”
Lawrence High junior Jack Ryan, meanwhile, came away from Saturday’s meet with some confidence even though he didn’t run his best.
In a race dominated by the Firebirds toward the top of the leaderboard, Ryan was in the mix with a time of 17:18.51. His mark, which was well shy of his personal-best time, was good enough for eighth place as an individual.
“It definitely helps just knowing I can compete with Free State because they are No. 1 in 6A,” Ryan said. “It definitely gives me confidence for these bigger meets coming up.”
Ryan admitted that he went extra hard in practice this past week, but will begin tapering his runs moving forward in preparation for the postseason. Ryan would like to get closer to his personal-best time of 16:42 in the bigger meets, as he hopes to earn a state berth by the end of the year.
Nelson nets third in girls race
Bishop Seabury’s sophomore Oona Nelson was also left wanting more after a third-place finish in the varsity girls race.
Nelson led in the early going on a foggy morning to begin the day, but was ultimately passed by a pair of Shawnee Mission East upperclassmen before the end of the race. Junior Grace Meyer won the event with a time of 19:42.92, while senior Kate Kowalik finished as a runner-up with a mark of 19:51.78.
Nelson’s time of 20:01.34 was still good enough to secure a bronze medal.
“I wish I could have held onto that second-place girl, but it is what it is,” Nelson said. “I think (I lost her) at about two miles is when she (got) away from me. I just tried to hang on.”
That has really been the theme of Nelson’s second season after she stormed onto the scene as a freshman last year. Nelson ended up placing sixth at the state meet last season, but has yet to hit her stride this fall.
“I wish it had been better,” Nelson said of her season so far. “My times aren’t really where I want them to be right now, but I’m just going to keep working.”
Still, there is plenty of time for the talented runner to reach her full potential in 2020. Nelson said one area of improvement could be focusing on her second mile of each race, as she usually starts and finishes strong.
It helps that Nelson has a good group of teammates to push her, too. Freshman Isabelle Pro placed seventh as an individual on Saturday with a mark of 20:39.17. The Seahawks finished third as a team, trailing Free State and champion Shawnee Mission East in the team standings.
The Firebirds had a pair of top 10 finishes en route to their runner-up finish as a squad. Junior Allison Babbit secured sixth with a time of 20:36.09, while senior Delaney Rockers finished ninth with a mark of 21:05.58.
Lawrence High’s girls team was led by junior Maddie DeWitt, who delivered her best outing of the year. DeWitt placed 12th as an individual with a time of 21:14.69, which was about 15 seconds faster than her previous personal record.
DeWitt credited her familiarity with the course for her big day, as she and sophomore Natalie Kennedy were the only two LHS runners to end up in the top 15.
“I know the areas where I tend to fall off and not feel great,” DeWitt said. “When I got to those spots, especially the last 800 meters, I was like, ‘OK, it is time to really kick it in and keep going.'”
After a slow start to the season, DeWitt now hopes to carry this momentum into the postseason.
“I didn’t start where I wanted to,” DeWitt said. “I just kept working at it and now I’m pretty content with where I’m at. I’d like to break 21 (minutes) by the end of the year.”
Both Free State and Lawrence High will be at the Sunflower League meet next Saturday at Frontier Trail Middle School. The regional meet and the state meet will take place over the final two weekends of October.
Free State Invitational
Saturday at Baldwin City Golf Course
Varsity boys team scores: 1. Free State 15; 2. SM East 49; 3. Lawrence 78.
FSHS results: 1. Ben Shryock 16:24.16; 2. Christopher Stone 16:28.63; 3. Ethan Sharp 16:33.47; 4. Jack Keathley-Helms 16:46.01; 5. Brock Cordova 17:00.80; 9. Blake Wohler 17:37.21; 10. Carson Marsh 17:46.74.
LHS results: 8. Jack Ryan 17:18.51; 18. Will Leuschen 19:25.55; 19. Keat Prescott 19:49.07; 20. Jack Pfeifer 19:55.74; 21. Jesse Self 20:22.81.
BSA results: 22. Luke Velte 21:15.96; 23. Hayden Slough 22:05.85; 24. Sam Jackson 25:44.40.
Varsity girls team scores: 1. SM East 20; 2. Free State 51; 3. Seabury 63.
FSHS results: 6. Allison Babbit 20:36.09; Delaney Rockers 21:05.58; 13. Ella McCleary 21:16.33; 16. Ella Marshall 21:27.56; 17. Olivia Goeser 21:28.33; 18. Stella Mosier 21:28.71; 21. Sina Boeger 21:48.11.
LHS results: 12. Maddie DeWitt 21:14.69; 15. Natalie Kennedy 21:22.99; 19. Lucy Hardy 21:41.40; 22. Grace Harader-Ellett 22:16.80.
BSA results: 3. Oona Nelson 20:01.34; 7. Isabelle Pro 20:39.17; 23. Darby Haris 22:27.79; 28. Campbell Helling 23:38.55; 29. Isabel Klish 24:39.52; 30. Hannah Motsinger 25:59.58.