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Good day for Tiger runners

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

VICTORIA -- Fort Hays State University junior Cory Keehn said the cross country season had been "rough" before Saturday's FHSU Open at the Sand Plum Nature Trail.

"We haven't really ran a race that's been a right distance or even just good weather, so our times have been really slow," Keehn said. "Not that times are everything, but it is kind of discouraging when you put in all the work and you see yourself running a lot slower than you are used to. The whole team felt that way."

From an organizational standpoint, Tiger coach Jason McCullough had "about five sleepless nights" not knowing whether Saturday's meet could accommodate spectators and more than 400 runners combined, more than double the inaugural run in 2012.

McCullough and land owner Joe Brungardt continually made changes, especially mowing a wider path at the start.

However, everything worked out well for the Tigers.

"It went better than I could have ever imagined," he said.

The Fort Hays men took third with 106 points and trailed just defending national champion Adams State (Colo.) College (33 points) and University of Nebraska-Kearney (76 points).

The women finished in fourth place with 116 points in the final tuneup before the MIAA meet in two weeks. Adams State took the women's title with 54 points. Based on Saturday's results, both teams are in the mix for the MIAA crown.

"I came in thinking if we could be top five in both the men's and the women's race it would be a fairly good day," McCullough said. "We competed very well. Our men had a really good front pack."

Sand Plum, a true cross country course, has long stretches, several twists and turns and some running in the woods. McCullough is likely going to have even more teams next year and would have multiple races.

"Overall, I think this is one of the best flowing courses and one of the most exciting courses that a runner in the Midwest will ever run on," he said. "I heard 'This course is awesome' about 100 times today. I am really excited about the course and really excited that Joe allows us to use it."

Keehn, the defending MIAA champion, had battled illness through the week and estimated he could breathe at just 70 percent of maximum capacity. He took 11th in a strong field in 24:47. Senior Isaac Mills and junior Jonny Bernasky, two Tigers who didn't score for FHSU on the conference-winning squad last fall, took 16th and 17th, respectively. Junior Nathan Purdue finished fourth in 26th place.

"To repeat again this year, we were going to need us three up toward the front," Keehn said. "This year, they are just as fit as I am. I know they can run with me, and I know they can beat me on any good day. It was good to have them there."

Keehn ran the first mile in 4 minutes and 43 seconds, while Mills posted a 4:48. On the backside, Keehn started to fade, but Mills and Bernasky pushed him to a strong finish.

"Got me going again, so it was good to have those guys there and pushing me," Keehn said. "I wasn't taking it easy on them, and they weren't on me."

On the women's side, the top-four runners placed in the top-30. Sophomore Ramsey McCarter led the Tigers with a 15th place finish in 18 minutes, 29 seconds. Senior Kylie Gaughan was two spots behind McCarter, senior Marie Schaller was 23rd and freshman Micki Krzesinki was 30th.

"We are finally all working really well together," McCarter said. "One week, somebody would do good and then everyone else wouldn't do so hot. Now, we are finally working together as a team, which is great, we have confidence."

McCarter started the season as the team's top runner but was fifth at the last meet at Emporia State. McCarter had fought some sickness, too, and McCullough noticed an attitude change.

"To run well, you have to be 100 percent go for what you are doing," McCullough said. "That is for anything you are doing. I think she has really focused more the last couple of weeks. She has recovered from illness as well. Just being in the right frame of mind."

McCarter moved up more than a dozen spots in the second half of the race. At Emporia, McCarter went out fast, a move that McCullough said "backfired." McCullough talked about going out a little quicker than what McCarter did Saturday. Even with the slower start, McCarter finished strong.

"She did well as far as moving up," McCullough said.