Free State boys cross-country captures first state title in program history

photo by: Photo courtesy of Steve Heffernan

Free State's boys cross-country team poses with the state championship plaque Saturday afternoon at 4 Mile Creek Resort in Augusta on Oct. 31, 2020. It marks the first state title by the Firebirds in boy cross-country, capping off a season where they won all but one race in 2020. (Photo courtesy of Steve Heffernan)

None of the Free State runners bothered to even look at their times or to see where they had finished as individuals.

For about 10-15 minutes after the varsity boys race, the Firebirds waited patiently to see if they had done enough to make history Saturday afternoon at the state cross-country meet at 4 Mile Creek Resort in Augusta.

At last, some parents that made the trip ended up delivering the good news: Free State won the Class 6A state title.

“Getting to cap off senior year with a team state championship could not feel better,” said senior Ethan Sharp, who led FSHS with a fourth-place finish as an individual. “I have always fantasized about how amazing it would feel to actually win. That’s not something I ever thought would be a reality.”

Free State scored 49 points as a team on its way to a first-place finish, besting runner-up Manhattan High’s mark of 57 points. The top-five FSHS runners placed inside the top-33, including four individuals who placed 14th or better.

Sharp led the way by claiming fourth with a time of 16:39.49 in the event. Junior Ben Shryock secured seventh as an individual with a mark of 16:44.73. Senior Christopher Stone ran a time of 16:49.19 to take 10th place.

Junior Jack Keathley-Helms ended up in 14th with a 16:55.61, while senior Brock Cordova came in 33rd with a time of 17:23.15.

“I can’t really describe it,” Cordova said. “I haven’t been a state champion before. It feels pretty good.”

It was a fitting end to a dominant season by the Firebirds, who won all but one meet in 2020.

Free State won the Sunflower League meet, in which three runners — Shryock, Stone and Sharp — either matched or broke the previous school record. The Firebirds then rolled to their third consecutive regional title a week later.

With a state title on Saturday to complete the postseason sweep, FSHS boys cross-country became the first city program in any sport to win a state crown since Lawrence High’s girls track team won a 6A title on May 26, 2019.

It marks the third cross-country state title captured by Free State, with the previous two being secured by the girls squad in 2016 and 2013.

“It was exciting to see them cap off a year,” said head coach Steve Heffernan, who has been directing both cross-country teams since 1998. “They are a lot of fun as a team, and watching them grow as a team was meaningful.”

But what made Saturday’s showing especially impressive was that the Firebirds had to overcome some adversity to make history.

The way the race was set up, runners had to run into the wind for the first quarter-mile and all competitors elected to jumble up because of those conditions. Nobody wanted to be in front, which led to a lot of contact between all the athletes competing in the heat.

As a result, one FSHS runner fell down to the ground and had to pick himself back up. Stone and Cordova each lost a shoe during the first stretch of the race. Both runners chose to finish out the race with one shoe instead of stopping to find their missing shoe.

“Even with two mishaps that could have ended a lesser team, we were still able to push through and end up getting first,” Stone said. “I panicked a little. Mostly, I thought I just needed to stay where I was. The worst thing I could do was let it get to my head and drop a few places.”

That was the first time Stone had lost a shoe in the middle of a race, but Cordova actually had that happen to him before. Cordova knew it was better to just run without the shoe, so he kicked it off when he felt it sliding off his foot.

“I trust my team,” Cordova said. “My team trusts me and we trust each other. That’s what makes this team good.”

After running with just one shoe the rest of the way, Stone and Cordova weren’t in a hurry to cover up their feet after the race either. They waited until they knew they were state champions to go looking for their shoes, which were located in the lost-and-found by the time they made it back to the start of the course.

“Brock and Chris just absolutely powered through it and did a great job too,” Sharp said. “It could have been so easy for either of them to just say, ‘Oh no, I lost my shoe, this is over.'”

But they didn’t, and that is a testament to how much the Firebirds have grown as a team to get to this point.

Free State didn’t qualify for the state meet in 2017, but it came out of nowhere to finish as runner-up at state in 2018 behind a squad loaded with promising young runners. The pressure ultimately got to the Firebirds the following year en route to a fifth-place finish in the final race.

This fall, though, Free State’s team put an emphasis on having fun after not knowing if there was going to be a season at all due to the pandemic. The Firebirds also started putting the team first, which was never more apparent than in the league meet when the varsity runners decided to cheer on the C-team.

“These guys really set a great tone,” Heffernan said. “What I’m going to remember most is just how they were unaffected by all the events that were going around them in the world. They were aware of them, but when they came to practice, they enjoyed each other they helped their teammates out. I think that’s what kept our team having a really positive experience this year.”

And it was a season that ended with a much-deserved trip to Braum’s to celebrate after the win. All the runners got to eat an unhealthy meal and drink soda for the first time all season before making the long trip back to Lawrence as state champions.

“That was really nice, most of us got to drink sodas for the first time in several months,” Sharp said. “That’s kind of where the party started.”

Class 6A state meet

Varsity boys team scores: 1. Free State 49, 2. Manhattan 57, 3. Gardner-Edgerton 101, 4. Olathe South 104, 5. Blue Valley North 155, 6. Blue Valley West 173, 7. SM South 176, 8. Wichita East 187, 9. Derby 219, 10. Dodge City 240, 11. Washburn Rural 242, 12. Junction City 319.

FSHS results: 4. Ethan Sharp 16:39.49; 7. Ben Shryock 16:44.73; 10. Christopher Stone 16:49.19; 14. Jack Keathley-Helms 16:55.61; 33. Brock Cordova 17:23.15; 71. Carson Marsh 18:24.58; 85. Blake Wohler 18:54.89.

Individual state champion: Daniel Harkin, Sr., Manhattan, 16:17.18.

Class 6A girls

Team champion: Olathe West

Individual champion: Anjali Hocker Singh, Fr., Olathe North, 18:39.16

Class 5A boys

Team champion: St. Thomas Aquinas

Individual champion: Erik Enriquez, Sr., Kapan Mt. Carmel, 15:43.90

Class 5A girls

Team champion: Maize South

Individual champion: Hope Jackson, Jr., Bishop Carroll, 18:58.00


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