By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Since 1976, the state cross country championships have been held in in Jefferson City. The Oak Hill course, home to legendary firehouse hill, has become a source of heroics, nostalgia and — depending on your perspective — nightmares.
While the meet is set to move north to Columbia in 2019, 1,346 high school runners in four classes took one final stab at history on Saturday.
In the Class 4 girls race, senior favorite Ginger Murnieks from Lee’s Summit West dominated a deep field of 169 runners to win in 18:35.78.
Ozark’s dynamic senior twin duo of Alexis and Brocklyn Barber finished in 7th and 18th place with times of 19:25.60 and 19:44.25, respectively.
The pair stuck with the lead group through the first sub-6:00 mile before Murnieks made a strong move and never looked back.
The area’s only other all-state finisher was Mia Harris.
The West Plains senior hit the line in 19:47.68 to capture 21st place.
Paced by Murnieks, the Lee’s Summit West squad won the overall team title with 73 points. West Plains finished third with 122.
In the boys race, Kirkwood senior outkicked Carthage’s Clayton Whitehead in the final 100 meters to take the individual title in 15:42.03.
The senior pair entered the weekend with the top two times in the state this season, with Whitehead holding a virtual edge at 15:11 to Baker’s 15:22.
The showdown more than lived up to its billing, with both Baker and Whitehead grouped into a four-man lead pack including Rockhurst senior Thomas Seitzer and Hickman senior Chandler Gibbens.
From the opening gun, the quartet threw down a gauntlet on the 165-runner field with a torrid 4:50 split at the first mile.
“I went out with the top guys,” Whitehead said. “Tom was taking the lead, so I was just trying to stay right behind them. Me and the Kirkwood kid separated around the two mile mark, and I tried taking the lead on the hill.”
Whitehead surged on firehouse hill and led through the third mile mark and into the race’s final uphill turn to the finish.
“It came down to the last straightaway between me and Kirkwood,” Whitehead said. “I just gave it all I had.”
While Whitehead’s initial burst opened up a brief gap, Baker closed quickly with a kick of his own and pulled away from his rival in the last 50 meters.
Despite the runner-up finish, Whitehead exited the chute knowing he gave the course his best effort.
“It’s unbelievable,” Whitehead said. “I’ve been waiting for this moment. Obviously, it didn’t turn out how I would have liked, but second is great.”
The area’s other all-state finishers included Branson senior Keifer Dooley in 9th place (16:29.34) and Kickapoo junior Brady Bauder in 10th (16:31.16).
Rockhurst won the overall team title with 72 points, with West Plains notching the area’s top finish at 11th (261).