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 boys race, Weaubleau senior Chase Ratliff improved on last season’s runner-up finish with a state title.
Ratliff’s 17:10.73 time bested the 17:22.47 posted by School of the Ozarks freshman Titus Thompson.
After watching Hermitage senior Easton Sabala drop the hammer over the last half of the race in 2017, Ratliff learned from the loss and used it as a learning experience to strategize for Saturday’s race.
“I just thought about how Easton beat me last year and pulled away in the second half,” Ratliff said, “So, I’m like, ‘I’m going to try that.’ I could still hear them behind me and thought I’d have to go down the hill right before firehouse and get some space there, because I was about dead when I got up to it. I just had to make sure I had enough space in between them so they couldn’t catch me at the end.”
Ratliff’s big surge stretched a four-second lead on the field at the two-mile mark to a 16-second cushion at three miles.
All that remained was the final kick uphill to a state championship.
As Ratliff struggled to recall his thoughts crossing the finish line, that very realization began to hit home.
“I’m kind of emotional right now,” Ratliff said. “I did this for my school, and it just means a lot.”
In addition to Ratliff and Thompson, the area featured a host of all-state finishers, including Liberal senior Dalton Hendrix (5th – 17:49.09), Chadwick senior Evan Smith (6th – 17:52.38), Fair Play junior Codey Shuler (8th – 18:01.48), Blue Eye senior Chris Lemp (11th – 18:04.37), Fair Play senior Noah Rutledge (13th – 18:05.04), Weaubleau sophomore Corey Ames (19th – 18:10.18) and Blue Eye freshman Ryan Cardenzana (21st – 18:21.95).
Kansas City Lutheran won the team title with 86 points, finishing ahead of third-place Liberal’s 106 and fourth-place Fair Play’s 140 points.
The girls race featured a showdown between South Nodaway senior Ashley Riley and Blue Eye freshman twins Riley and Avery Arnold.
For a little over a mile, it was exactly that.
After following Ashley Riley’s lead out and sticking directly behind for the first mile, the twins surged and never looked back en route to a one-two finish.
Riley won the race with a time of 20:07.99, with Avery finishing in the runner-up slot in 20:17.74.
Marion County freshman Delany Strauss was third in a time of 20:25.04, while Ashley Riley finished in fourth in 20:37.19.
Afterwards, Avery Arnold talked about having to adjust strategy on the fly during the race.
“Initially, we were going to try to stay behind Ashley,” Arnold said. “But, during the downhill stretch, me and Riley both got her. We didn’t really want to lead the race, but we kind of had to.”
The twins led the tightly-bunched lead pack of top-four finishers through the second mile mark, and then the freshmen duo surged again.
This time, it was Riley throwing down a pace the others couldn’t match.
At the three-mile mark, her lead opened to 14 seconds on Avery and 17 on Strauss.
When she finally turned the final corner and headed for the uphill finish, Riley Arnold realized her dream was about to come true.
“I was excited,” Riley said. “I just wanted to make sure I got it as I crossed the finish line, because I knew they were coming behind me.”
Other all-state finishers from the area included Blue Eye freshman Braylynn Siercks (11th – 22:07.77), Fordland sophomore Mia Wiley (16th – 22:29.32), Liberal junior Cailee Lake (18th – 22:36.82), Fair Play junior Kaylee Foster (21st – 22:38.97), Blue Eye junior Olivia Labrier (22nd – 22:46.18) and Sparta sophomore Kimber Rains (25th – 22:51.04).
While Blue Eye placed four runners in the top 25, the Lady Bulldogs were edged by Kansas City Lutheran in the team overall title race, 60-73.