At the halfway point, so much is clear- we know what we know, and we know what we don't. Enough teams have raced each other that I'm going to make my best attempt to cross analyze each classification because unless a team is located in NWA, they probably haven't raced their top competition. I should preface this article that I spent the previous four years coaching at Mountain Home and have worked hard to stay unbiased in my writing about young men and women's performances. I'm doing my absolute best to give everyone equal notoriety, while still providing some entertainment value and quality content. I also taught high school math, so expect some typos!
Please remember, any name mentioned is that of a teenager, not an adult. They run for the passion of the sport and not college scholarships. The sport of cross country is incredibly coach driven, maybe more so than any other sport. You can't just throw talent out on the field and win.
These young men and women must be developed both mentally and physically in order to succeed, so on occasion, I praise the coaches and hope to have the opportunity to interview some of them in the future.
The 1A classification is going to prove to be Abbey Linville's to lose. Abbey is a tenured racer who finished 2nd in the 1A/2A division last year. She's won 5 races in her career and 2 this year, so she should be comfortable in the lead of a state championship. She also benefits for a 125-second gap between her and the #2 ranked girl, newcomer Ashlyn Floyd from Kingston, and though gaps tend to tighten as the season's near the end, that's about as big of a gap as there is to overcome. If Abbey stays healthy and gets to the line in one piece, she sure appears the runaway favorite.
On the team side, only four 1A teams have raced this year. Kingston, who didn't run at last year's state meet, looks like the best team at the halfway point. Their 23:33 average is 85 seconds better than #2 Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy. If NWACA could find an underclassman or a basketball player in their school that could fill in front of their #4, they'd have a shot. Moving their #4 to their #5 would change their 1-5 split from 6:34 to 3:12, and then we've got a race. Personally, I can't help but wonder if a team decides only to run their state meet and challenge Kingston for the trophy.
The individual race appears to be a three-way race between Joseph Garay of Hermitage, Ryan Kotoucek of NWACA, and Josh Cooper of Kingston. Garay is the most experienced of the two, the fastest this year, and the fastest returning runner. His PR of 18:02 is 30 seconds better than Kotoucek's, but Kotoucek lays claim to a slightly quicker 800 and 1600 PR. That means if he can somehow make up for 30 seconds of early season fitness, he will be a threat late in the race. Sophomore Josh Cooper of Kingston has run four times this year and managed to improve in every race, which is a rare feat. His 18:53 PR is quite a bit behind the other two, but he's already nearly 2 minutes ahead of where he began the season. He will be a runner to watch.
Kingston is also the favorite on the boys' team side, but the water is a lot muddier in the boys' race.
Between Kingston, NWACA, Quachita, and Hermitage, four teams have an average of 20:23-20:44, and according to Milesplit's team rankings, there are currently only 24 points that separate those 4. Ouachita, the defending A/AA state champion, is currently looming in the shadows and has the best #2 man out of those 4 teams. That means it's going to rely much more on who arrives at the meet the sharpest, and experience usually shines at the state meet, which could hold back some of the younger teams and newer programs. Just like goldilocks and the three bears, your porridge can't be too hot or cold on state meet day; it has to be just right!
One disappointing thing about this year's state meet is the split-up of 1A & 2A classifications. I imagine some 1A teams want a chance to win a state title, and I respect that, but there are very few teams currently registered, and it greatly waters down the class. Katelyn Provence is the favorite, but because of the split, we won't get to watch a Linville-Provence showdown. Provence will have a much more difficult road to face; Taylor Hooten of Quitman has been a staple competitor in the class going on three years. Hooten, only a junior, has 18 cross country races under her belt, including a 6th place and 4th place finish at two state meets, while Provence only has one race. Provence nearly taking down Lineville may show that only a couple races are all she will need, but it still adds a significant question mark. Ali Looney from Parkers Chapel will be another runner to watch. She finished directly behind Hooten at last year's state meet and is the only senior ranked in the top 10 of 2A. Looney also notched a win on her belt already this season at El Dorado last Saturday.
Quitman is the defending team champion, and they look to repeat with three runners ranked ahead of anyone else's #1. Their 23:34 team average is respectable, and they have a full team of 7, so they can fill any gaps if someone gets hurt, which is a huge luxury not ever team in smaller classifications have. Mansfield will look to be their closest competition, but at 26-49, they will have to bring their A-game on race day.
On the boys' side, Jacob Tyburski is the midseason favorite to win, but not by a lot. Though he is the only runner to break 17, doing it twice in 16:24 and 16:52, respectively, Tyburski is trailed by two excellent runners in Justice Neufeld and Josh Tibbs. Tyburski was 2nd in 2018 but appeared to have missed the meet last year for injury or another undisclosed reason. Neufeld is only the 4th returner (Garay was lost to classification split), but it doesn't take much research to realize he's a much more consistent runner than he was last year, with only 5 seconds separating his three 5k's this season. Tibbs, the defending state champion, has a 1600m PR 1 second behind Neufeld's of 4:45, and cross country history has proven time and time again that some people just run better the stakes are highest. You'll find that no matter how people run in the season, I'm careful to bet against a defending state champion.
According to Milesplit the meet is St. Joseph's to lose unless Haas Hall Bentonville can find a way to field a full team. They are currently projected to win 26-63 with 6 guys faster than Quitman's 3. Last year's runner-up team, Quitman, has the smallest split of 1:34 but is slightly lacking in firepower up front unlike St Joseph and Haas Hall.
The 3A girls' race appears to have 3 midseason contenders for the individual title. Juliah Rodgers, the defending state champion, currently has the fastest time of the 3. The course Rodgers ran her 20:19 on, Mountain Home, is hardly a fast course. However, the other two runners hot on her tail, Joyce Ferguson of West Fork and Maria Grano of Waldron, are anything but long shots. Ferguson has already raced 5 times this season and has won 3 races.
Grano, #3 returner, shares a 1600 PR with Rodgers of 5:50, which should make her considered a threat to Rodgers 3A reign. Rarely do you get a second chance for a different result, but Grano and Ferguson will have time to decide exactly how they want to beat Rodgers. Ferguson, the lone senior of the group, will be running like it's her last state meet.
On the team side, defending champion Waldron will face stout competition from West Fork, with last year's runner-up Jessieville appearing to be unable to field a full team early on.
Both West fork and Waldron have virtually equal #1's, West Fork is better at #2, and Waldron will have the better 3-5. For Waldron to challenge, their #1 & #2 will have to have their best days of the season.