Despite being the favorite, Firebirds treating state meet like any other race
photo by: Chance Parker
Free State’s boys cross-country team is trying to treat it like any other race even though there is so much at stake during Saturday’s Class 6A state meet at 4 Mile Creek Resort in Augusta.
The Firebirds, who are the No. 1 team in Class 6A, enter the event as the favorite to win a state title. It is significant because Free State’s boys cross-country squad has never won a state title in program history. The FSHS girls team has two team titles, including a crown in 2016.
But the Firebirds are preparing for this race just as they did when the 2020 season started.
“It’s just another meet,” senior Christopher Stone said. “I’ll get thinking about it and be like, ‘Wow this is a big meet.’ But then I remember it is just a meet.”
That mentality might seem peculiar from an outsider’s perspective, but it has been the key to Free State’s success all year long.
FSHS, which was ranked as high as No. 5 in Class 6A early on, wasn’t viewed as a contender entering the season. So the Firebirds decided to just focus on running their race and letting the rest take care of itself.
It has resulted in an impressive season in which FSHS has won all but one race.
“I think part of it was just not being so stressed out about this season,” senior Ethan Sharp said. “We didn’t have as much pressure on ourselves. This season has been more of just going out there and having fun and having a good time.”
That carefree mentality became a point of emphasis for the Firebirds after they faltered down the stretch in 2019.
After finishing as a runner-up in 2018, Free State had aspirations of winning a state title last season. But those lofty expectations got to be too much for a young team, which ended up taking fifth in the final race of the year.
“We are a little bit more calm this year and a little bit more focused this year,” senior Brock Cordova said. “We still have that want and that goal. That’s what is keeping us together right now.”
Part of that mindset also comes from the simple fact that there was no guarantee that this weekend would ever come.
Many of these cross-country runners were on the track team, which never got a chance to get going. The spring season was canceled due to the threat of COVID-19, which meant there were 225 days between the last KSHSAA state meet in 2019 (bowling) and the first such event (girls tennis) in 2020.
“Once you have a global pandemic, you start to realize that a state cross-country meet isn’t the biggest thing ever,” Sharp said.
The addition of Stone was also a huge boost to Free State’s prospects in 2020.
Stone had previously competed in soccer the last three years while training with the cross-country team in the offseason. The cross-country team always pleaded for Stone to join the team, and he finally obliged ahead of his final prep season.
“The team dynamic is one of my favorite parts,” Stone said. “Being able to run multiple miles per week with these guys is a good experience, and you really get to know them.”
Between the team chemistry and carefree mentality, it has all led to a dominant campaign by the Firebirds this fall.
Manhattan, which figures to be Free State’s biggest challenger this weekend, finished 12 points back of FSHS in the Sunflower Showdown in late September. No other team in Class 6A has finished within 30 points of the Firebirds this year.
The Firebirds won their third consecutive regional title last weekend, but their performance in the Sunflower League meet showed what they were capable of. The top-five runners finished inside the top-14 for a total-team effort.
Junior Ben Shryock won an individual title that day with a time of 15:30.20, while Stone was runner-up with a mark of 15:32.20. Both of those times were better than the school record. Sharp, who came in seventh place in that race, matched the school record of 15:49.70.
Cordova and Jack Keathley-Helms both ended up with the same time of 16:11.00 to provide a glimpse of what could be in store for this weekend.
“Whatever happened at league was just something special,” Sharp said. “I think league was a big confidence boost for everyone because it shows we can do this.”
The Class 6A boys race will begin at 12 p.m. Saturday.
Baldwin girls cross-country looks to win third title in four years
Baldwin’s girls cross-country team could headline the area cross-country action this weekend by winning its third title in the last four years.
The Bulldogs, who finished as a runner-up in 2019, will look to take back the team title from last year’s Class 4A champion Buhler. Baldwin won back-to-back state crowns in 2017 and 2018 and is coming off a regional title last weekend.
Baldwin is led by Riley Smith, who enters the meet with a season-best time of 19:51.7. Ambrynn Stewart, Diana Messick, Jana Landreth, Abigail Patterson and Bailey Smith all helped provide a balanced attack for the Bulldogs as well.
Eudora girls could be in the mix for some hardware on Saturday, having finished as a runner-up at regionals and winning the Frontier League title. EHS freshman Sydney Owens won an individual title at regionals, which was a meet that also included Baldwin.
Tonganoxie’s Kristi Chambers also qualified for the state meet as an individual after placing sixth at regionals.
On the boys side, Eudora is going to the state meet as a team after finishing as a runner-up at regionals. Tonganoxie’s Eli Gilmore was a runner-up as an individual at the same regional meet. Caleb Carr and Hudson Allen both qualified for the Baldwin boys as well.
The Class 4A state meet will take place at Wamego Country Club, starting with the boys race at 9:30 a.m.
Fresh off capturing a regional crown, Bishop Seabury’s girls cross-country team will be in action at the Class 2A state meet at the Sand Plum Nature Trail in Victoria. The 2A girls race is slated to begin at 10:05 a.m. Saturday.