Houston’s growing and improving cross country program had a pretty good day on Monday.

At the 2023 South Central Association conference championships at Willow Springs Municipal Golf Course, Houston’s boys and girls high school and middle school teams were all winners.

Called the SCA Cross Country Challenge, the meet featured runners from all conference teams.

“The kids have bought into what we’ve been trying to sell,” said Houston cross country head coach Justin Brown. “It’s a good feeling.”

In high school boys racing, the Tigers were paced by sophomore Jack Sawyer, who placed 6th in a field of 42 runners with a time of 18:59.38 on the tough 3.1-mile course. Next for Houston was sophomore Warren Hinkle in 7th at 19:17.34, while senior Jake Allen came in 10th at 19:51.38.

The HHS boys.

Making up the rest of the Tigers’ team score were juniors Connor McKinney in 13th and Riley Talbott in 15th. Also running for Houston were senior Aiden Kelly (17th) and freshman Dillon Shelton (32nd).

Salem junior Alex Diehl finished first individually at 17:36.66, while Willow springs freshman Joel Smith came in second, over a minute back at 18:38.91. Salem took second in the team standings and Mountain Grove was third.

Sawyer, Hinkle and Allen earned All-SCA Second-Team recognition, while McKinney and Talbott received Honorable Mention.

In the high school girls race, HHS junior Kristen Ely placed third in a field of 27 with a time of 22:32.22. Sophomore Natalie Clinton was next for the Lady Tigers, finishing 5th at 23:59.59, while sophomore Lilly Kincaid came in 8th at 24:47.62, junior Summer Bittle placed 12th and junior Allie Benoist ran 13th.

The HHS girls.

Mountain Grove senior Katelyn Jarrett won the race with a time of 22:07.38, while Cabool senior Hannah McCroskey was second at 22:23.28.

Ava took second in the team standings, while Thayer was third.

In middle school girls competition, Houston dominated with three runners finishing in the top-4.

HMS 7th-grader Lyla Huffman won yet another race, scorching the 1.5-mile course in an SCA record time of only 9:43.66, while 6th-grader Myles Copley took second with a personal record (PR) time of 10:03.38 and 6th-grader Haley Crowe placed fourth at 10:55.47, also a PR.

The HMS girls.

“Lyla and Myles started a bit slow,” Brown said, “but after about a half mile they found their stride. They’re something special; it was pretty cool.”

The rest of the Lady Tigers’ team score came from 8th-graders Jessyn Allen and Jesslynn Crawford finishing 12th and 16th, respectively.

The HMS boys squad was also dominant, with all five scorers finishing in the top-10 in a field of 23.

Sixth-grader Oliver Choate led the way, placing second with a PR time of 9:46.97. Next to finish for Houston was 6th-grader Charlie Benoist in fifth at 9:57.91 (a PR), while 8th-grader Christopher Meier came in sixth at 10:14.31 (a PR), 6th-grader Liam Stickel placed eighth and 6th-grader Tucker Richardson ran 10th.

The HMS boys.

Also running for the Tigers were 8th-grader Gage Smith (11th) and 8th-grader Thomas Kincaid (15th).

Liberty 7th-grader Ethan Dodd won the race with a speedy time of 9:20.38.

Almost every Houston runner shaved significant time off of their previous best efforts on the course – some improved by as much as 2 minutes, and several by more than a minute.

“Those are drastic numbers to take off on a tough course,” Brown said. “It’s a lot to take in, and it’s hard to wrap your mind around everything. It’s a conference championship meet and everything was so fast-paced.

Houston cross country head coach Justin Brown talks to the HMS boys prior to a race last week at Licking.

“But I told the kids when we were on the bus that it’s time to be quiet because we’ve got a job to do today. Everyone seemed to take that to heart.”

On Thursday of last week, Houston runners competed at the annual Licking Wildcat Invitational at Deer Lick Park in Licking.

Runners from 9 high schools competed in the event, with 6 boys teams and 4 girls squads generating 5-runner scores.

On the boys side, West Plains took first in the team standings, as Zizzer athletes took all of the top-5 individual spots to post a perfect score of 15. Houston took second, while Versailles was third.

Sawyer paced the Tigers, finishing 10th in a field of 52 with a time of 18:44.77 on the flat 3.1-mile course. McKinney was next for Houston, placing 15th at 19:30.93, while the rest of the team scored came from Hinkle in 16th, Shelton in 22nd and Talbott in 24th.

In girls racing, West Plains and Houston finished first and second again, with the Lady Zizzers taking 5 of the top-6 places individually.

Ely led the Lady Tigers, finishing 8th in a field of 37 with a time of 22:34.26. Clinton placed 9th at 23:24.31, Kincaid, Bittle and Benoist were bunched up in 14th, 15th and 16th, respectively.

In middle school competition, Houston took the top 2 places in a field of 53 runners. Copley won her first-ever race, while Crowe finished second.

Huffman was sidelined due to an injury.

HMS 6th-graders Myles Copley, left, and Haley Crowe wear their medals after a 1-2 finish at last week’s Licking Wildcat Invitational.

Houston’s boys were led by Meier, who came in 10th in a field of 83. Houston had two other athletes finish in the top-20, as Choate and Benoist placed 15th and 16th.

Houston runners will compete again this week in a Thursday meet at Clever, and then host the annual Tiger Trail Invitational next Thursday (Oct. 19) at Houston Municipal Golf Course.

Brown plans to take Huffman to the big Clever meet as she prepares for the upcoming middle school state championship meet. She’s currently ranked 7th in Missouri.

“It will be good for her to run against some really tough competition,” Brown said.

When Brown assumed the helm of Houston cross country three years ago, there were a total of 16 kids involved. This season, there are 36.

“If you would have told me then that we would be where we are now, I would have been baffled,” Brown said. “But these kids show up every day and do the things that nobody else wants to do.

“The proof is in the pudding.”

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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