HHS senior Hunter McKinney (1344) runs during the Class 2 boys state championship race last Saturday in Columbia. Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO

Finishing off his high school cross country career in style, Houston senior Hunter McKinney posted a personal-record time in the Missouri State High School Activities Association Class 2 boys race last Saturday at the Gans Creek Cross Country Course in Columbia.

McKinney reached a career goal by posting his first-ever time under 18 minutes, finishing 40th in a gigantic field of 168 runners while covering the fast 3.1-mile course in 17:52.10.

Senior Tanner Talley, of New Covenant Academy in Springfield, won the race with a blazing-fast time of 15:32.50 – almost half a minute quicker than the 16:01.00 posted by runner-up Nathan Hinrichs of New Bloomfield.

Stockton won the Class 2 boys team championship with a score of 87 points, while Principia took second with 107 and Steelville was third with 110.

Houston’s trio of freshmen all concluded a fine inaugural season in the Class 2 girls race, led by Summer Bittle, who capped off a late-season surge by finishing 80th in a huge field of 166 runners with a time of 22:47.30. Next for Houston was Kristen Ely in 101st at 23:22.40, while Allie Benoist placed 124th at 24:10.40. Ely was hampered by an ankle injury that she had dealt with for several weeks.

HHS freshman Summer Bittle (1535) runs during the Class 2 girls state championship race last Saturday in Columbia. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Blue Eye senior Riley Arnold won the race with a time of 19:23.00, while West Platte sophomore Julia Pattinson finished a close second at 19:23.40.

Hermann took the Class 2 girls team title with 74 points, while Summit Christian Academy was second with 81 and North Platte came in third with 121.

This season marked the first time in 10 years that the South Central Association was sanctioned as a cross country conference by MSHSAA. McKinney earned first-team All-SCA honors, while Bittle, Ely and sophomore Jake Allen made the second team and Benoist received honorable mention.

Houston cross country was guided in 2021 by first-year head coach Justin Brown. As a runner for Mountain Grove, Brown went to state four years in a row, and won the Class 2 state championship race as a senior in 2006.

“It’s been a fantastic season,” he said. “It was a lot more than I ever imagined it could have been. I’m extremely proud of the effort that the kids were willing to put in – they really bought into what I was trying to teach them.

Houston runners and coaches stand together at the state championship cross country meet last Saturday in Columbia. From left, head coach Justin Brown, senior Hunter McKinney, freshmen Kristen Ely, Allie Benoist and Summer Bittle, and assistant coach Melanie Foreman. SUBMITTED PHOTO

“And I was so impressed by the perseverance some of these kids displayed with battling injuries and other issues, but that’s what it takes if you want to get to that next level.”

This season was the third since the HHS cross country program was resurrected after being halted in the early 1980s.

“I think that the kids coming back next year see that they’ll have to work even harder if they want to get better,” Brown said. “And that’s what we want, to see that gradual progression each and every season as they go through high school.”

McKinney also went to the state meet as a sophomore in 2019 before being hindered by injury in 2020.

“It’s going to be sad to lose Hunter – he’ll really be missed,” Brown said. “He’s the mold for what Houston athletes should follow; he’s a great leader and leads by example. He’s one of those kids who shows up every day and works hard no matter what, and he pushes the younger kids and is a great role model for the kids coming up.”

With Allen and the trio of girls returning, and the addition of some strong newcomers who have been forces in middle school races, Brown believes the future of HHS cross country is bright.

HHS senior Hunter McKinney, center, and freshman Allie Benoist run through ribbons as students and faculty members cheer during a send-off event last Friday for runners heading to the cross country state championship meet. EMILY HONEYCUTT | HOUSTON HERALD

“It looks like we’re going to start gaining some ground over the next few years,” he said.

Brown plans to have fifth-graders join the program in 2022.

“That way we can try to start developing their skills at a younger age,” he said, “and to see who really wants to do it and who doesn’t. If you can get success going early, it really makes them want to continue on that path.”

The top-30 finishers in each boys and girls race garnered All-State recognition. Complete results from boys and girls races in all classes can be found online at www.mo.milesplit.com.

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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