By AUSTIN COLBERT
Hays High School cross country coach Jerold Harris thought the Indians Class 4A regional at the HHS Course last week would be a "dogfight," and he was right. As expected, Clay Center took top honors with Hugoton finishing second in both the boys' and girls' races.
But third place was wide open, and some way, somehow, Hays High was able to nab both third-place spots to qualify for Saturday's 4A state meet at the Wamego Country Club.
"I was tickled to death. I thought the guys just ran with a lot of heart," Harris said.
"Just top to bottom they competed and just wanted it. Our girls can still run better. We had a couple of girls not run as strong as I think they should of. And they still ran well, but I think we can do better."
Last year, Hays High didn't have either team qualify for state, instead sending just three individuals to the 5A meet at Rim Rock Farm near Lawrence in Zachary Hopp, Marie Reveles and Haley George.
But this season both teams are going, which Harris said he believes is the first time in school history that both the boys' and girls' teams have qualified for state in the same year. The boys' team last went in 2012, while the girls' haven't qualified since 2010.
"I really like it this year because we all go as a team and we worked really, really hard this year to work toward that. I'm glad we got it now," said George, now a junior, who took 12th at regionals, just three second and two spots behind Reveles, the Indians' top girls' runner. "I've been thinking about it a lot, and I don't really know for sure yet. But all I know is I want to stay with Marie again like I did, because I was three seconds behind her and I know I can stay with her."
The Indians are hoping for better finishes than last season at state. Reveles, now a sophomore, led the Indians with 62nd place, while George took 75th place. Hopp, also a sophomore this season, finished 51st. But again, this was in 5A and at Rim Rock, making it difficult to compare to this season's move to 4A and Wamego.
And while the Indians are familiar with Rim Rock, they can't say the same about Wamego, a course none of the current runners have any experience on and won't until the race begins on Saturday.
"They don't allow you on the course the day before. So we will go into the course blind, which I don't like by the way. I like to know what's ahead of me," Harris said. "We'll get there early and get on the course so we'll get to see it, but it's not the same as jogging it the day before and thinking about it."
The HHS boys are led by Hopp, who battled through a hip injury at regionals to finish 19th, third best on the team. Sophomore Ethan Shippy was the top runner that day, taking 11th, followed by freshman Allen Zollinger's 17th-place time.
For Shippy, who will experience state for the first time as a runner, it's about learning for future years. He went to Rim Rock last year to watch Hopp run, so he feels he has a basic understanding of what state will be like.
But running it is a whole different animal.
"He can probably handle pressure better than me, though. I'm usually nervous every run," Shippy said of Hopp. "The experience, that's probably one of the biggest things. I remember our first meet last year, I was kind of, 'Wow, I didn't know it would be like this.' ... That's the best feeling knowing the whole team is there. Everybody is there to support you. It's going to make it 10 times as fun."
Hess TMP's lone state qualifier
Thomas More Prep-Marian junior Andrew Hess may be running by himself Saturday when he makes the trip to Wamego for the 4A cross country meet, but that doesn't mean he will be alone and it doesn't mean he has had to practice alone all week.
As TMP's lone state qualifier this season, Hess has had his own entourage all week in preparation for his second trip to state.
"This week, I don't make anybody practice with him. But he's had eight teammates show up all week and run with him, just to help him along," TMP coach Matt Dumler said. "So he's been training all week with his teammates he's been used to running with and he's got all of them going down with him to support him, so he's got a team going down with him. They may not be running with him, but the support system is still there."
Hess had an impressive race at the 3A meet at Rim Rock last season, finishing 12th in his first go round at state. Hess took seventh place at the HHS regional last week in a race TMP expected to compete for the third-place spot as a team, boys and girls, but settled for sixth on the boys' side and fourth and the girls'.
"Going into regional we knew we were going to be one of four or five teams, on both sides, that were going to have a shot of getting out," Dumler said. "We knew we were going to contend for it and they gave it an honest effort. They went out and ran really, really well. It's just Hays High had a tremendous day. Those kids showed up and competed very well and just ran lights out. They earned it that day."
Even though Hess will be the only Monarch on the course Saturday, Dumler still has high expectations for the junior. Unlike Hays High, Wamego is a course TMP sees frequently and a course Hess already has a lot of experience on.
The atmosphere at Wamego is a little more intense than Rim Rock, where you can hide for mass number of spectators on parts of the course, a luxury Wamego doesn't afford. But if Hess can bring the same intensity as he did last season at state, Dumler believes another medal could very well be a possibility.
"I kind of expect big things from him. He has worked really hard and he figured out this year how to compete and how to run with the leaders. He's got an attitude that he's willing to do that," Dumler said.
"Is he going to come out with that same fire and that same intensity as he had last year? That's what we are going to be looking for. I believe he can be in the medals. He believes he can be in the medals. Now, depending on how the day looks like, you never know. But I think he can be and I think he is going to challenge for one."