As they continue to improve week to week, runners on the Houston High School boys cross country team have been taking turns lately being the first to cross the finish line in meets.
On their way to another team victory, the Tigers maintained that pattern by having another man lead the way at the annual Ava Invitational Tuesday at Ava Country Club in Ava. This time it was junior Aiden Kelly, who finished fourth in a field of 41 with a time of 19:44 in cold, windy conditions on the hilly 3.1-mile course. As usual, Houston’s top-3 runners were bunched closely, as junior Jake Allen came in fifth at 19:45 and freshman Warren Hinkle came in sixth at 19:59.
Rounding out the Tigers’ team score were freshman Jack Sawyer in 12th at 20:30 and sophomore Conner McKinney in 13th at 20:40.
While Houston topped the team standings in the event with 38 points, Sparta placed second at 55 and Salem was third at 67. The win was the Tigers’ third this season.
“I’m very proud of the way the boys performed again,” said head coach Justin Brown.
Salem sophomore Alexander Diehl won the race with a time of 19:03, while Sparta junior Talon Phillips was second at 19:34.
Kelly is in his first-ever season of running cross country, and the meet marked the first time he has led the Tigers home.
“He’s really stepped up this year,” Brown said. “He’s only in his first year, but he has pretty much become our team leader right now. He’s pushing his teammates, and you can see the determination in his face when he comes to practice. And he always has the right attitude and carries himself really well.
“He’s really starting to come into his own.”
Last week at Clever, it was Allen who paced the squad for the first time.
“It’s the upperclassmen’s job to set the tone,” Brown said, “and Jake and Aiden have been doing that the past few weeks. It’s really fun to watch.”
The meet also marked the first time McKinney had finished in the Tigers’ top 5.
“He had his moment, and it was a big day for him as well,” Brown said. “The boys have been performing exactly how they should.”
The girls race at Ava included only 19 runners, and Houston was the only squad to generate a team score with 5 competitors, so the Lady Tigers earned their second meet victory of the season.
“Half the battle is showing up,” Brown said, “and the other half is running the race.”
Sophomore Kristen Ely paced the Lady Tigers again, finishing fifth with a time of 24:28. Sophomore Summer Bittle also placed in the top-10, coming in eighth at 24:55, while freshman Natalie Clinton ran 12th at 27:15, sophomore Allie Benoist placed 14th at 28:19 and junior Miah Bressie came in 15th at 28:30.
Clinton and Benoist were experiencing knee soreness at the meet, and Ely developed a stomach cramp during her second lap around the course.
“We have some girls with injury issues,” Brown said, “so we’re trying to work through that.”
Cabool junior Hannah McCrosky finished first with a time of 23:40, while School of the Ozarks freshman Ella Howard was second at 23:55.
The Houston cross country program will host the second annual Tiger Trail Invitational Tuesday (Oct. 25) at Houston Municipal Golf Course.
The HHS boys and girls will run in the Missouri State High School Activities Association Class 3 District 2 championship meet Saturday, Oct. 29, at Hermitage.
“We’re in the fine-tuning stages right now,” Brown said. “We were expecting a great year in Class 2, but since we’re in Class 3 we have to go out and compete that much harder. We need to get off to a good start and find a good pace, and after that, give it everything we have.
“It comes down to guts and grit, and who wants it most.”