Houston's freshmen trio of Kristen Ely, left, Summer Bittle, center, and Allie Benoist continued a successful season by all finishing high enough at last Saturday's district meet to qualify for this Saturday's state meet. Credit: DOUG DAVISON | HOUSTON HERALD

Thanks to their performances at the Missouri State High School Association Class 2 District 2 championship meet last Saturday at Clever, four runners from Houston High School will compete at this Saturday’s state meet.

The top 30 finishers in the boys and girls races at the 23-school district meet qualified for state.

Houston senior Hunter McKinney will be making his second trip to state after finishing 13th in a field of 101 runners with a personal record time of 18:00.37 on the flat 3.1-mile course – a mere .38 shy of his career goal of a sub-18 time.

McKinney went to the state meet as a sophomore in 2019, and was then hindered by injury through much of his junior season last year.

“It feels really amazing,” he said. “I’ve missed this feeling for too long. With all the downhills that have happened to me – like injuries and COVID playing a small factor – it really feels good to get to go back. It almost brought tears to my eyes thinking about how this will be my last meet for high school. But I wouldn’t want my last meet to be anywhere else. It’s sad to know that when I cross that finish line that the high school cross country career is over.

“But I’m going to leave everything I’ve got on that course and hit a goal of mine, which is to run in the 17s.”

HHS senior Hunter McKinney runs in a meet in September at Willow Springs. He will run in his second state meet this Saturday in Columbia. EMILY HONEYCUTT | HOUSTON HERALD

Winning the boys race and earning the individual district crown was senior Tanner Talley of New Covenant Academy in Springfield with a time of 16:07.61, while Blue Eye senior Ryan Cardenzana came in second and Pleasant Hope senior Zane Hull finished third. Stockton won the team district championship with a five-runner score of only 42 points, while Blue Eye was second with 61 and Alton placed third with 102.

HHS sophomore Jake Allen finished 38th with a PR time of 19:27.36 (about a half-minute faster than his previous best), while senior Nick Washko placed 44th and set a PR of 19:52.26 in his final high school cross country race.

“He had been shooting for the 19s all season and finally got it,” said HHS head coach Justin Brown. “What a great way to go out.”

In the girls division, Houston’s freshmen trio of Summer Bittle, Kristen Ely and Allie Benoist continued their successful first season in high school cross country by all qualifying for state.

Bittle ran the race of her life, finishing 10th in a field of 76, posting a PR time of 22:41.79 in the process and shaving almost a minute off of her previous best time. She had been dealing with various injuries most of the season, and shined brightest at districts.

“She was just a different runner,” Brown said. “It was really great to see her break out like that.”

Despite fighting an ankle injury, Ely placed 24th with a time of 23:35.61, while Benoist came in 28th at 23:47.13. Benoist was back in 44th place at the 1-mile mark, but moved up 16 spots before crossing the finish line.

“She really showed a lot of heart,” Brown said. “She wanted to get into that top-30 real bad.”

After qualifying for the state meet, Houston’s three freshmen stand with their coaches last Saturday at the Class 2 District 2 meet in Clever. From left, assistant coach Melanie Foreman, Allie Benoist, Kristen Ely, Summer Bittle and head coach Justin Brown. SUBMITTED PHOTO

The winner was senior Riley Arnold of Blue Eye with a time of only 19:36.64, while junior Lily Hunsucker of Spokane ran second and Hartville senior Clemmie Taylor came in third.

Blue Eye won the girls team district championship with 58 points, while Stockton was second with 77 and Mansfield placed third with 80.

As soon as Arnold finished, she got into her car and traveled to Annapolis to help the Blue Eye volleyball team take on South Iron in a quarterfinals contest of the Class 1 volleyball state tournament.

“That’s quite an athlete right there,” Brown said.

The Class 2 state championship races will be run this Saturday at the Gans Creek Cross Country Course in Columbia, the home course for the University of Missouri squads. The boys race is scheduled to begin at 11:15 a.m. and the girls race is set for noon.

McKinney was one of the athletes who helped restart Houston’s cross country program is 2018 after an absence of about 40 years.

“This season was my most memorable season out of the three,” he said. “I had so much fun getting to run alongside my two varsity teammates, Nick and Jake. We all, as a team, have put in a lot of hard work since June and you could see all the hard work in effect toward the end of the season as everyone hit personal records.”

Brown is in his first season leading cross country in Houston.

“I’m extremely proud of every one of my kids,” Brown said. “This is what cross country is all about – all the early morning practices and late evening practices. The dedication and discipline these kids have shown is why they have been so successful and they are reaping the benefits from their hard work.”

The future of cross country in Houston appears bright, and will include the addition of 8th-grader Warren Hinkle to the HHS squad. Hinkle has won multiple middle school boys races this year and placed high in several others.

“Next season looks extremely promising,” Brown said, “as there is a possibility of both boys and girls having a full team which will be exciting to see!”

“I’m excited to see what comes next,” McKinney said. “If Warren continues to put in the work, he would be a star runner who will definitely achieve more than I did. Coach Brown also helped me out so much as a runner to improve myself and I can’t thank him enough for that. He was coaching me as a sort of personal trainer before he even took the job as coach.

“He really made me into the runner I am today.”

Doug Davison

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Contact him by phone at 417-967-2000 or by email at ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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