HHS sophomore Hunter McKinney runs in the season-opening cross country meet at Willow Springs.

With numerous high school underclassmen and middle school runners excited about improving and competing, the future of cross country racing at Houston Schools would appear to be pretty bright.

But in Houston cross country’s recently concluded first season since 1985, there were already some noteworthy performances. Most of those were turned in by sophomore Hunter McKinney, who topped off his remarkable inaugural season in the sport by finishing 108th in a field of 173 runners in the Class 2 boys state championship race last Saturday at the Gans Creek Recreation Center in Columbia. McKinney’s performance at state wrapped up a season that included a third-place finish at the South Central Association conference championship meet at Willow Springs, a 14th-place showing at the Class 2 District 9 meet at Washington and multiple top-10 finishes at other meets.

HHS sophomore Hunter McKinney (red jersey, white sleeves) approaches the finish line during the MSHSAA state championship cross country meet Saturday in Columbia.

The run at districts qualified McKinney for state.

“It feels good,” he said.

Competing at the state meet was an eye-opening experience for McKinney, and being around so many good runners and such a huge, enthusiastic crowd left him eager for more.

“It was exciting,” he said. “It definitely prepared me for next year. I just hope we get to take a team next year.”

In Houston’s reboot season of cross country, only two boys and one girl ran high school varsity races, and five runners are required for a team score.

McKinney has run long distance races in track and field at both the middle and high school level, and he’s glad cross country is now available to him.

During a send-off event for cross country state meet qualifier Hunter McKinney, center, teammates Jordyn Lay, left, and Zach Brannan hold a sign wishing the HHS sophomore well in the Class 2 boys race. Houston Schools students and faculty lined Ozark Street and Bryan Avenue during the event.

“It’s a lot more fun than I thought,” he said. “It’s way better than what I first thought it was going to be like.”

No two 3.1-mile cross country courses are alike, but McKinney keeps their similarities in mind while negotiating the various set ups.

“You just have to remember that when you see an uphill to run up it,” he said, “and sprint when you see a downhill.”

McKinney said he tries to maintain a steady mindset while he runs and he typically feels at ease while out on the trail. But the state meet made him feel different.

Hunter McKinney wears the medal he earned for finishing eighth in a field of 33 runners in the varsity boys race at this year’s Ava Invitational.

“Usually, I’m pretty comfortable,” he said, “but at state I got pretty nervous because it was my first time going to state. But I thought to myself, ‘just think of it as a normal race.’

“That helped.”

Hunter McKinney runs at at meet this season in Mountain Grove.

When Houston cross country coach Michelle Henshaw held the first practice last summer, McKinney was the only kid to show up. But over the weeks, numbers of bodies steadily grew.

“I was kind of having second thoughts about doing cross country if there wasn’t going to be anyone else,” McKinney said. “But they started coming and I got more comfortable with it.”

As the season progressed, McKinney noticed some soreness in a knee. Henshaw stepped in and made some dietary suggestions that helped.

“Coach had me eat all-wheat spaghetti and I was drinking lots of protein stuff, because that helps rebuild,” McKinney said.

“When he had the knee issues, we looked at his diet quite a bit,” Henshaw said, “and he wasn’t getting enough protein. So we made sure that was something he was getting, and supplemented with protein shakes instead of just food. We were also looking at whole-wheat carbohydrates, and it did help; he wasn’t wearing his brace at the last meet.”

Henshaw said she enjoyed helping McKinney maximize his first-ever shot at cross country racing.

Houston High School principal Dr. Justin Copley shakes hands with Hunter McKinney after the sophomore was honored at the board of education meeting on Tuesday night for qualifying for the state championship cross country meet. McKinney was presented a certificate for his achievement, which came during Houston’s first season of cross country racing since 1985.

“We talked about it, and in any sport you want to take your season as far as you can,” she said. “We took this season as far as we possibly could, and I’m beyond proud of him. Last year, we didn’t have cross country at this school; now I personally feel like it has changed the course of his life.”

Now that his first season of cross country is under his belt, McKinney has a few goals in mind for his future in the sport.

HHS sophomore Hunter McKinney, right, approaches the finish line during the MSHSAA state championship cross country meet Saturday in Columbia.

“I hope that by my junior or senior year, I’ll get to the top-25 in the state,” he said. “I also want to get a team together and place as a team, too, and I eventually want to run in college.”

As far as McKinney and Henshaw are concerned, plenty of kids would be pleasantly surprised if they tried cross country.

“It’s a running sport,” Henshaw said, “but rarely did I hear kids dreading practice, because it’s fun. They came to every practice excited and ready to go.”

“This is more fun that what you think,” McKinney said. “And it feels good to win, and with cross country you get that chance a lot.”

Hunter McKinney’s sister, Morgan, holds a sign while standing on the edge of Ozark Street during the send-off ceremony for Hunter last Friday.

Houston cross country coach Michelle Henshaw smiles to the crowd as she drives a school-owned vehicle along Ozark Street as students and faculty participate in a send-off event for sophomore Hunter McKinney last Friday, the day before he ran in the Class 2 boys race at the state championship cross country meet in Columbia.

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