I walked out of my house Saturday morning, and it was the first race morning that felt like cross country season. The temperature was 55 degrees, and the wind was slight, which would make for a perfect morning of racing in Siloam Springs and Searcy. It's perfectly healthy for an old has been to smell a little nostalgia in the air when fall hits. Though some of the top teams that have already raced a few times in September opted for training over racing in week 3, there were still some fantastic matchups to be had. I will start with Saturday and work backward for a change.
Over 50 high schools got together in Searcy to race at the Bison XC Invitational, and the times were lightning fast. West Plains, a small rural school in southern Missouri, is the most prestigious program in the history of their state, and they made the 3-hour drive south to see how they matched up. They had already hosted their home meet on Tuesday. The boys' race featured some of the top individual runners in the state, but none could take down Riley Simpson of West Plains, who would win in a blazing fast time of 15:23. Connor Jackson from Manila was the lone challenger and spent much of the race slightly trailing Simpson, who pulled him along to an impressive 15:39 PR, which is the 2nd fastest time in the state this year. John Sutton from Conway finished 3rd in 16:03. Defending 5A state champion Dominic Ward from Greenbrier looked much more comfortable than at LRXCC and ran an impressive 16:20 for 4th place.
Another West Plains runner rounded out the top 5, who didn't field a full boys team. Bryant High School would go on to win their first team competition over Conway, 75-91, but averaged 8 seconds slower than the Conway team thanks to Conway's dynamic duo of Sutton & Swindle. On the girls' side, West Plains showed why they are ranked the overall top girls team in the state of Missouri, going 1-2-4-5-9 to win the team competition. The lone Rogers runner, Hailey Day, was able to finish 3rd in a big PR of 19:21, showing that Coach Efurd at Rogers has a few cards in his hand he hasn't put on the table yet. Emma Selph from Benton finished 6th running 20:13, while Mary Beth Bailey was the 3rd Arkansas runner in 7th place. We knew Valley View was going to be good this year, but coach Zipfel's squad showed they will be really tough to beat in the 4A division. They may even be good enough to win 5A. Though they finished a distant 2nd place from West Plains with 68 points, they beat two good teams in Conway and Jonesboro, and they have much fewer resources than some of the teams that finished behind them. Valley View's 5 girl ran 22:26 to close out a respectable 1:46 split. Overall, times were smoking fast, but that tends to happen when we get some good racing weather.
Over in the west half of the state, 13 high schools gathered for the Panther XC classic in Siloam Springs. Don't let the number of teams fool you; there were quality runners scattered across the course. Bentonville dominated the boys' race, finishing with a perfect score in the 6A division and being split up by only Noah Embrey from Greenwood and Michael Capehart from Siloam Springs. They are both in the individual 5A champion conversation. Dawson Mayberry broke 16 minutes for the first time of the year, just beating his brother Dylan 15:58 to 16:08. Aidan McDaniel from Bentonville finished 3rd in 16:29. The results showed just how stinking hard the Fort Smith course was last week, because Siloam Springs isn't traditionally fast, and many runners ran over a minute faster. Jacob Braswell, the returning 4A state champion from Huntsville, ran his fastest time of the year in 18:02 as he looks to repeat. There were no surprises in the girls' race, as Bentonville girls ran the gauntlet on their competition for the 2nd time in as many weeks. Emily Robinson is 2 for 2 on the season, as she ran 19:12 to win uncontested. Her teammates Madison Galindo and all-star freshman Kayla Hurley rounded out the top 3 spots. Once again, Macie Cash was the only person to split up Bentonville's power-5, running 19:37 to finish 4th and cut over 1-minute from last week's time. Greenwood girls made a major statement, winning their division with 30 points over Pea Ridge's 55 and Siloam Spring's 60. They averaged 21:55 with their #5 girl running 25:39. If they can cut their 6-minute split in half by adding a runner, they very well may be the new 5A girls team favorite.
All the other action in the state happened on Tuesday and there was LOTS of it.
Heber Springs hosted their Annual Josh Park Memorial Invitational, and past winners of the event's long history read like a who's who of Arkansas cross country. John Sutton from Conway won his first race of the week in an untouched 16:57. Conway took the top 2 spots to narrowly defeat Cabot for the boys trophy 38-45. Ethan Kailey, their usual #3 man, finished 2nd overall in 17:28, outsprinting Grayson Young from Cabot, who finished 3rd in 17:30. Teams seem to be running more split crews early this year than in the past like Conway did this week. Maybe they are trying to hold their cards close to their chest? Abbey Linville from Rural Special, last year's 1A-2A runner-up, opened up her season in style, winning the girls race in 20:37. However, she wasn't unchallenged, as the girls race was a story of smaller schools because Chloe Weather from Clarksville, last year's 4A runner-up, gave a valiant effort and finished 2nd in 20:47.
Both of those girls stated their case to be considered threats to take their class state championship in November. Valley View girls won their Division 33-71 to Quitman, defending 1A-2A state champions, while Cabot girls beat Conway girls in the large school class. Cabot girls 22:31 average and 1:12 split was the smallest of the day for both combined divisions. Quitman will look to improve on their 24:48 average in hopes of defending their title. Presley Roberts from Greenbrier won the large school class in 21:35.
Hot Springs Lakeside enjoyed another week of dominance, winning both the girls and boys team AND individual titles at the Tom Stuthard Invitational in Mena on Tuesday. I'm excited to see what they accomplish with some equal or better competition. Dylan Dew won the individual boys competition in 16:56, beating one of the top 1A-2A returners in Justice Neufield from Acorn, who ran 17:08 and nearly running a PR.
Jadon Cunningham finished 3rd from El Dorado, who looks to be one of El Dorado's best individual runners in recent memory. Lakeside's Caleb Wrublesky and Hunter Dorathy wrapped up the top 5. Their overall team average of 17:50 is solid, and they beat Dequeen for the 2nd week, which is probably the most storied 4A program of the past 20 years. Whitley Terry, another Lakeside runner, won the girls' race in 20:31. She finished 5th at last years 5A meet and appeared to be in better form. Juliah Rodgers, defending 3A state champion from Jessieville, finished 2nd place in 21:11. Jessieville has a new coach as Arkansas boys 2019 coach of the year, Robert Blades, made a move back home to central Arkansas from Mountain Home, where he has been a staple as both assistant and head coach the previous 16 years. Blades takes over a Jessieville program, which, much like DeQueen, has graduated many highly celebrated runners. Lakeside girls team defeated defending 3A state champions Waldron 19-63 with a 22:08 average, while they put 5 girls in the top 8. Lakeside has 2 sophomores and 2 freshmen in their top 5, which is a statement that they will be a team to watch for a while. It looks like they will only graduate one runner this year.
The meet that flew under the radar this week was West Plains hosting Mountain Home for the Joe Bill Dixon Invitational on Tuesday, which basically amounted to their annual dual meet. The only place you can find results is on the West Plain's coach Facebook page because they rarely, if ever, publish results. The individual boys race was exceptional, as Whit Lawrence held off a powerful kicker in Riley Simpson in the final 400 meters to win 15:48-15:50. They ran shoulder to shoulder for much of the race. Riley would go on to run 15:23 at Searcy. Andrew Westphal from Mountain Home, who was a standout sophomore last year when he ran 9:51 for 3200 on the track to win the team time trial, would finish 3rd in 16:47, and Mountain Home would go on to put 5 runners in front of a good West Plains #2 to win 19-46. Their team average of 16:59 on a hilly course is impressive, but definitely, if you consider that the same West Plains #2 that barely outkicked Mountain Home put 5 guys in front of would run 16:22 at Searcy later that week. 5A defending state champion Marcie Cudworth would win the girls' race wire to wire, leading a pack of West Plain's runners as long as they could hold on. Marcie ran 19:06 to defeat Brayden Kantola, who was 19 seconds back. Kantola would win the Bison XC Invitational 5 days later in 18:54. Rylee Patterson was Mountain Home's 2nd runner, who ran 20:36 to finish 6th behind Marcie and 4 West Plains girls. West Plains would win the girls race 21-40 against Mountain Home, while Mountain Home girls would average 21:45 with a massive 3:51 split, which could be attributed more to Marcie's fast time. I've been to the West Plains course nearly a dozen times and raced on it 3 times myself. Though it isn't the hardest, it's anything but easy, which makes one wonder what the Mountain Home's Lawrence and Cudworth will run on a flat course when they are chasing someone. On the team side, their #5 guy ran 17:36, and first-year coach Wil Norris will have his work cut out for him if they hope to compete against a very deep Lake Hamilton boys squad.
Performance of the Week:
Whit Lawrence running 15:48 to defeat Missouri's #5 overall runner at the time, Riley Simpson.
Abbey Linville winning the Josh Park Memorial Invitational in 20:37, showing that school size doesn't matter on the cross-country course.
Surprises and Observations:
We know Bentonville boys and girls are good, but until they race their NWA counterparts, which could be their only competition in the state, we won't know how good.
A picture is starting to develop of how which teams and individuals will compete for state titles in the smaller classifications.
Mountain Home has two VERY good #1 runners in Whit Lawrence and Marcie Cudworth, who beat both of West Plain's #1s head-to-head before they came down to Searcy and swept.
With the Frank Horton Invitational and the Cyclone Invitational on the docket this week, expect to see some lightning-fast times turned in a week from now if weather stays favorable.
Valley View put on two awesome team performances in the same week!