By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
NIXA — Almost immediately after his top five girls crossed the finish line on Tuesday evening, Joplin coach Dustin Dixon reviewed the notes on his clipboard and began doing the math.
He wasn’t about to wait for race officials to print the results. The school had waited long enough for a cross country conference championship, and he wanted the news as soon as possible.
So out came the clipboard, on which he had been recording the finishes of each of his runners and their top competitors, and a calculator to determine each team’s total score. His unofficial tally showed Joplin edged Nixa, and the official totals confirmed his math a few minutes later.
The final score was a razor-thin 43-47, as Joplin emerged with a stunning victory on Nixa’s home course and won the Central Ozarks Conference cross country championship. The Webb City boys won their seventh straight title with an even slimmer 57-59 victory over Carthage.
“This is the first conference cross country championship for boys or girls in our school’s history,” Dixon said. “We’ve worked really hard for a long time. The girls came out today and they raced well. There’s not a single senior in those seven girls and we were excited to finish what we did.”
Seven of the first twelve girls across the finish line were from Nixa or Joplin.
Nixa junior Alicen Ashley won her second straight individual conference title with a time of 19 minutes, 9.23 seconds, with Joplin’s Jennalee Dunn finishing seven seconds behind her.
Joplin’s No. 2, 3 and 4 runners — Alexandra Carson, Sage Mitchell and Allie Keizer — all finished in front of their Nixa counterparts, with Mitchell edging Nixa’s Macy Kopp by .03 seconds for 10th.
With Nixa’s No. 4 and No. 5 runners, Adelyn Janssen and Brookelyn Bidinger, still on the track and leading every other Joplin athlete, the hosts were poised to make up some ground. But a 21st-place finish from Cylee Gilreath ensured it wasn’t enough to overtake Joplin for the title.
“We knew that Nixa was going to be tough and it’s always tough to beat somebody in cross country at their own place,” Dixon said. “I’m sure in other spots it’s difficult to beat somebody at their place, but cross country is totally different because every course is different and those girls run on this course every day. Beating them here is something really special.”
There isn’t much time for Joplin to celebrate the win, as they’ll return to Nixa on October 31 for the district meet. Because of Tuesday’s result, Nixa now enters that race as the underdog. It’s a role the hosts are thoroughly embracing as they look to move past the unexpected defeat.
“It’s hard because it does bring us down a bit,” Ashley said. “It gets us a little bit scared. But at the same time, we are the underdogs and — like our coach was saying — it’s hard to beat a good team twice. We are the underdogs, so that can motivate us to beat them at the next race when they think they have the upper hand. They think that they have us. I think us being underdogs will motivate us even more to be able to beat them at the next race.”
For as close as the girls race was, the boys race was even closer.
Webb City coach Dustin Miller said it was the third time in the school’s seven-year run as conference champions that the Cardinals have won the title by two or fewer points.
“Our first and our fifth year were by one,” Miller said. “Today it was by two. We’ve had a lot of nail-biters. Hats off to Carthage today. They had a great team race. They followed the game plan they set out and had a great day. You know, I’m an alumni of Carthage, so I’m proud of their effort today. But I always like when we finish in front of them.”
On Tuesday, the majority of Webb City’s runners actually finished behind a Carthage runner.
Webb City’s first, third and fifth finishers — Joseph Dawson (third), Roman Borboa (10th) and Samuel Winesburg (23rd) — each crossed the line one spot back of a Tiger. But Webb City’s No. 2 and No. 4 finishers — Owen Weller (sixth) and Dustin Brockmiller (15th) — created enough space between them and Carthage’s even-numbered finishers to give the Cardinals the victory.
“We’ve had a rough season with some quarantines and sicknesses and little injuries, but our workouts have really come together and we had our best race of the season,” Miller said. “They still have a lot of room to grow, thank goodness, but I’m just really proud of the guys for stepping up.”
Perhaps no single runner stepped up more than Willard junior Thomas Shuster, who won just his second race of the season with a time of 16 minutes, 12.68 seconds and earned the individual conference title. He finished over 12 seconds clear of Carthage’s Mariques Strickland, and estimated it was a 30 to 40-second improvement from any other time he’s posted this year.
“I was told that I had so much left in me,” Shuster said. “People kept telling me to push. Knowing that I have a week and a half left until districts, I decided I have nothing to lose. I decided to try it out. It worked out really well. I didn’t know I had that in me. I’m speechless.”
As he has done all season, Shuster dedicated the race to his grandparents. Both of them passed away earlier this year from complications caused by COVID-19.
“They’d be really proud of me,” he said, looking toward the sky. “I know they’re looking down at me. This one’s for you guys. I love them. They mean the world to me.”
GIRLS TEAM RESULTS
1. Joplin, 43
2. Nixa, 47
3. Webb City, 70
4. Ozark, 103
5. Neosho, 146
6. Carl Junction, 156
7. Branson, 163
8. Carthage, 177
9. Willard, 246
No other school had more than five runners
BOYS TEAM RESULTS
1. Webb City, 57
2. Carthage, 59
3. Joplin, 76
4. Branson, 132
5. Nixa, 141
6. Ozark, 151
7. Willard, 160
8. Neosho, 197
9. Carl Junction, 202
10. Republic, 260
GIRLS TOP 15 FINISHERS
1. Alicen Ashley, Nixa — 19:09.23
2. Jennalee Dunn, Joplin — 19:16.45
3. Mihane Nambara, Republic — 19:19.67
4. Elizabeth Kitchin, Ozark — 19:58.83
5. Alexandra Carson, Joplin — 20:05.32
6. Misora Nambara, Republic — 20:09.76
7. Kopelyn Delong, Ozark — 20:10.67
8. Emily Harris, Nixa — 20:20.92
9. Hailey Philpot, Webb City — 20:23.23
10. Sage Mitchell, Joplin — 20:29.93
11. Macy Kopp, Nixa — 20:29.96
12. Allie Keizer, Joplin — 20:38.76
13. Abi Street, Webb City — 20:55.57
14. Riley Kemma, Neosho — 20:56.68
15. Riley Hawkins, Webb City — 21:08.97
BOYS TOP 15 FINISHERS
1. Thomas Shuster, Willard — 16:12.68
2. Mariques Strickland, Carthage — 16:25.26
3. Joseph Dawson, Webb City — 16:26.42
4. Kaden Cole, Neosho — 16:28.63
5. Gabriel Bauer, Ozark — 16:32.97
6. Owen Weller, Webb City — 16:33.60
7. Wes Hartman, Nixa — 16:35.68
8. Colytn Herrera, Carthage — 16:40.40
9. Malcolm Robertson, Carthage — 16:40.94
10. Roman Borboa, Webb City — 16:42.41
11. Collin Emmert, Carl Junction — 16:43.65
12. Hobbs Campbell, Joplin — 16:45.97
13. Zaben Barnes, Joplin — 16:48.01
14. Evan Matlock, Joplin — 16:48.62
15. Dustin Brockmiller, Webb City — 16:55.07