By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
SPRINGFIELD — There were not many surprises at the finish line of the Ozark Conference Cross Country championship on Saturday, as the Kickapoo boys and West Plains girls continued their run of championships with strong performances on a cool, windy day at Lake Springfield Park.
The biggest surprise — for at least one of the runners — may have been at the starting line, because this race was actually going to be run.
If you had asked Kickapoo sophomore Klarie Brown at the start of the season if she, her teammates and the rest of the Ozark Conference would have the opportunity to compete for a conference title, she would have said no. With the COVID-19 pandemic not yet under control, there was still a great deal of uncertainty about what effect the virus may have on fall sports.
“I thought we would have two or three races and that would be it,” Brown said.
In a season where one of the only certain things was uncertainty, Brown and so many other runners developed a mindset that they were going to make the most of whatever opportunity came before them. And Saturday was no different.
Competing on her home course, Brown led the field from wire to wire en route to her second straight individual conference title. She crossed the finish line in 19 minutes, 30.94 seconds, about 31 seconds faster than the title-winning time she posted at last year’s race.
But the next four finishers were all from West Plains, and that was more than enough to give the Zizzers a ninth straight conference championship. They finished with 23 points to Kickapoo’s 46.
“We’re just happy to be running,” West Plains girls coach Alicia Gunter said. “We just pray every day that we get to compete and that we’re all healthy and that we get a shot at it.”
Gunter said the week leading up to the race was particularly difficult. With their most significant meet of the season to date so close, the Zizzers — and every team at the race — they were still so far away from the starting line. One test result can quickly change the course of a season.
“We’ve been staying really healthy, but we’re just stressing about that every day — about what’s going to happen on a phone call,” Gunter said. “We’ve got a few aches and pains as you go in, like every other team does, and we’re trying to stay focused at the most important time of the season.”
While the girls race featured a Kickapoo athlete finishing in first place and West Plains taking the team title, the opposite was true of the boys race.
Riley Simpson, a senior from West Plains, topped all runners with a time of 16 minutes, 3.3 seconds and won the individual title. But Kickapoo had three of the top six finishers to beat the Zizzers 35-53 and take home a third straight team championship.
“It’s one of our goals every year and it’s never an easy goal with the Zizzers around,” Kickapoo coach Jeremy Goddard said. “The first goal of the year is to win the conference meet. We put in a lot of work out here and it’s not a course that everyone enjoys coming to. It’s a tough course. The kids treat it as their own and defend it as their own.”
Brown left no doubt in the girls race, taking an early lead and creating more distance between herself and the rest of the pack with each stride. By the time she traversed each of the grueling hills and crossed the finish line, no other runner was within 15 seconds of her.
“Klarie’s a heck of a runner,” Goddard said. “Backs it up with a ton of work. Never misses. All year round, she’s committed to running. You put hard work and ability together and you get something special — and she definitely is something special.”
Simpson had never won a race at Lake Springfield before today. He finished third in last year’s Ozark Conference meet and was one of the favorites heading into this race thanks to a strong showing at the Southwest Missouri Cross Country Coaches Association meet.
But he had to withstand a furious challenge from Kickapoo sophomore Tyler Harris, who was right on his tail until the final hundred meters — a straight downhill shot to the finish line.
Simpson pulled away and won by 4.2 seconds. Harris finished second, and then more than a minute elapsed before another runner crossed the finish line.
“I’ve ran this course for four years and it’s always kind of been a goal to get first in a varsity race,” Simpson said. “It’s just taken a long time to get where I am.”
Despite the win, Simpson said it was “not really a good year to” earn his first win at Lake Springfield. He lamented the effects the pandemic had on off-season training for all athletes.
“People’s schedules and trainings got messed up during summer,” Simpson explained. “Coronavirus kind of took over. Teams got separated. Not just us, but more teams around the state. I’d say that anybody that’s lucky enough to get to race and get their times down is lucky.”
West Plains had a combined 11 boys and girls runners make the all-conference team. Kickapoo had 10. The team finishes and individual awards were worth celebrating, but so was the start.
“It’s a good thing to just be racing,” Simpson said. “If this would have gotten cancelled, it would have been pretty devastating.”
GIRLS TEAM RESULTS
1. West Plains, 23
2. Kickapoo, 46
3. Lebanon, 109
4. Rolla, 146
5. Glendale, 161
6. Waynesville, 164
7. Camdenton, 169
8. Parkview, 179
9. Central, 207
GIRLS ALL-CONFERENCE RESULTS
1. Klarie Brown, Kickapoo, 19:30.94
2. Brayden Kantola, West Plains, 19:46.75
3. Jordan Kantola, West Plain, 19:52.47
4. Jayna Gunter, West Plains, 20:40.87
5. Kaylee Lambe, West Plains, 20:58.76
6. Tara Randol, Kickapoo, 21:07.09
7. Lilah Genel, Parkview, 21:14.84
8. Galiena Colon, Kickapoo, 21:19.70
9. Jorden Woods Tollenaar, West Plains, 21:25.13
10. Izzy Frost, Rolla, 21:31.20
11. Myah Hough, Lebanon, 21:57.46
12. Daphnie Dollins, West Plains, 22:03.96
13. Kyia Weisbrod, West Plains, 22:19.11
14. Cambrie Kowal, Camdenton, 22:20.20
15. Allison Barker, Kickapoo, 22:32.05
BOYS TEAM RESULTS
1. Kickapoo, 35
2. West Plains, 53
3. Waynesville, 99
4. Lebanon, 104
5. Glendale, 138
6. Central, 153
7. Rolla, 178
8. Parkview, 228
9. Camdenton, 238
10. Hillcrest, 307
BOYS ALL-CONFERENCE RESULTS
1. Riley Simpson, West Plains, 16:03.30
2. Tyler Harris, Kickapoo, 16:07.50
3. Brooklyn Creehan, Kickapoo, 17:07.94
4. Nate Polshander, Rolla, 17:13.78
5. Justin Fleetwood, West Plains, 17:20.89
6. Colby Garner, Kickapoo, 17:30.95
7. Connor Ayres, Parkview, 17:36.42
8. Bryan O’Barr, Waynesville, 17:39.03
9. Luis Pedroza-Vasquez, Lebanon, 17:44.68
10. Drew Stewart, West Plains, 17:50.07
11. Kyle Keltner, Kickapoo, 17:50.85
12. Alejandro Malave, Waynesville, 17:53.78
13. Jack Creehan, Kickapoo, 17:57.84
14. Colby Goddard, Kickapoo, 17:59.25
15. Jackson Sydow, West Plains, 18:03.80