HHS junior Kristen Ely (1488) drives toward the finish line during last week's Class 3 District 2 Championships meet at Lamar. Ely came iin 19th and qualified to run again this week at the state meet in Columbia. Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO

Following the Missouri State High School Activities Association Class 3 District Championships last Saturday at Jeremy’s Creek Golf Course in Lamar, Houston High School’s cross country program will be represented by one runner at this week’s state championships in Columbia: Junior Kristen Ely.

With the top-30 finishers qualifying for state, Ely battled the cold and wet conditions to finish 19th in a field of 92 runners in the girls race, posting a time on the 3.1-mile course of 21:39.76, the second-best of her career.

Next across the line for the Lady Tigers were sophomores Natalie Clinton and Lilly Kincaid in 46th and 47th, while the team score was rounded out by junior Summer Bittle in 54th and junior Allie Benoist in 61st. Despite the miserable conditions, Kincaid posted a personal record time.

HHS sophomores Natalie Clinton (1487) and Lilly Kincaid (1489) run in the girls race during the Class 3 District 2 Championships meet last Saturday at Lamar.

Houston placed ninth in the team standings among 12 squads with 5-runner scores. Osage won the district championship, while Lamar took second.

Fair Grove freshman Katrina Cantrell won the race with a time of 19:57.27, while Clever senior Riley Britton was second at 20:16.19 and Lamar senior Abigail Diggs finished third at 20:33.80.

In the boys race, Houston placed ninth out of 15 squads with scores, while El Dorado Springs won the district and Springfield Catholic was second. El Dorado Springs freshman Wyatt Klaiber led his team to victory by finishing first in a field of 123 with a blazing-fast time of 15:45.48, while East Newton senior Chase Sorrell took second at 16:02.02 and El Dorado Springs junior Braxton Watts ran third at 17:04.06.

Sophomore Jack Sawyer was the first Houston runner to finish, coming in 49th with a time of 18:50.36. Rounding out the Tigers’ score were senior Jake Allen in 55th, sophomore Warren Hinkle in 57th, senior Aiden Kelly in 59th and junior Connor McKinney in 67th. Also finishing for Houston were junior Riley Talbott in 92nd and freshman Dillon Shelton in 99th.

HHS sophomore Jack Sawyer runs toward the finish at Lamar.

Ely qualified for state as a freshman when MSHSAA had Houston in Class 2, and then missed out by a slim margin last season when Houston was bumped up to Class 3 and she finished 33rd in districts.

“Kristen is very driven and has had this goal since she was a freshman,” said third-year head coach Justin Brown. “With her, it’s always ‘what can I do to get better?’ She’ll even run on Saturdays and Sundays, and those are the days when you grow.”

Despite having to compete at the Class 3 level at the district meet, the Tigers and Lady Tigers both had banner seasons in 2023. Both squads won the South Central Association conference championship and both were victorious at multiple other meets.

“I knew being in Class 3 would be difficult,” Brown said, “but you can tell how we’ve been building up to this point over the past two seasons. You can see the kind of drive these kids have now, and how they’re believing in themselves and in what we’re teaching them. This isn’t an instant gratification sport, and it may take a couple of seasons for a kid to really get what cross country is.

Clad in red and black, Houston’s boys leave the starting line last week at Lamar.

“But like I always say, you run in the dark to shine in the light, and there are a lot of things these kids do that most people aren’t aware of.”

If Houston was in Class 2 this year, all five boys who made up the team score at districts would have qualified for state, along with several girls. To illustrate the difference in Class 3, everyone in the boys race at the district meet who qualified for state ran under 18 minutes.

Brown hopes that Houston moves back to Class 2 in 2024.

“If we do, I promise we’ll make lots of noise,” he said. “But the hand we’re dealt is what we’ve got, and we just have to roll with the punches. The kids have to realize that if we stay in Class 3, they just have to push themselves even harder.”

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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