Lady Bears win seventh straight Area 9 crown
The Harlan County Lady Bears’ streak of Area 9 cross country titles will come to an end one day – but that day isn’t here yet.
The Lady Bears won their seventh consecutive district championship Saturday on their home course, edging upstart Middlesboro by three points.
“This is a big accomplishment for these kids. It’s been a challenging season for us, all due to things outside our control, but they’ve worked hard all year and they’re seeing the benefit of their work,” Harlan County coach Ryan Vitatoe said. “We really appear to have turned a corner with how we’re racing.”
Harlan County ran at full strength for the first time in nearly a month as junior Katie Graham and freshman Abby Vitatoe returned from injuries. Senior Breezy Epperson led the Lady Bears’ attack, finishing third with a time of 24:23.28. Cadence Ferguson (sixth, 25:01.56), Ariel Madden (ninth, 26:17.34), and Shiann Westfelt (10th, 26:21.18) also posted top-10 finishes.
Rounding out Harlan County’s results were Graham (12th, 26:32.43), Katelyn Hensley (15th, 27:40.91) and Vitatoe (16th, 27:44.68).
Sophomore Lucy Bryson posted a fourth-place finish for Harlan with a time of 24:40.62. Ella Morton (29:06.38) finished 18th.
“Lucy is a stronger runner than she was this time last year,” Harlan coach Tara Bryson said. “She is getting older and becoming a more confident runner.”
Middlesboro’s Mallory James earned Area 9 Runner of the Year honors, posting a time of 22:28.50 to win the race by nearly two minutes. Leslie County’s Kinsey Forgey (24:11.81) came in second.
The Area 9 race was run concurrently with Harlan County’s annual Black Bear Invitational, with both meets scored concurrently. The Lady Bears also won the invitational championship.
The boys squad also won the Area 9 title, their fourth in a row, handily defeating Letcher County Central behind a breakout performance by Josh Lee. The junior won the race by more than a minute, posting a time of 18:13.25.
“Josh ran a fantastic race. I’ve been waiting on him to bust one. I could see it coming, and he certainly picked the right day to let one go,” Vitatoe said.
Alex Lewis (19:35.15), Zack Carmical (20:03.18) and Caleb Brock (20:05.72) finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively. Cooper McHargue finished ninth with a time of 21:22.50, followed by Matt Yeary (13th, 21:50.09) and Andrew Crawford (29th, 26:07.88).
“I give a ton of credit to Breezy, Josh and Alex,” Vitatoe said. “They have turned up their intensity, and it’s carried through the team. For these seniors, I can’t think of a better way for them to close their career at home. They’ve worked so hard for four years, and it’s a great accomplishment to cap it.”
Tate Bryson paced Harlan, finishing sixth with a time of 20:35.84. Story Miller (21:35.50) and Charles David Morton (21:44.12) finished 11th and 12th, respectively, and Jeremiah Mills (24:59.75) came in 26th.
“Our boys have yet to run in a meet five strong as a team, but our goal is to bring them all together Oct. 28 at the regional meet in Wayne County and qualify for state,” Bryson said.
The Bears came in second, five points behind Whitley County, in the invitational scoring. The Colonels were led by Jackson Estes, who finished second with a time of 18:49.59.
Harlan County’s girls won the junior varsity race as senior Laura Creech won her final home race, posting a time of 29:37.06.
“I can’t say enough about Laura,” Vitatoe said. “From where she started four years ago to winning the JV race today – it’s proof that hard work pays off. She’s the epitome of discipline and determination, and we’re a better program because of her contributions.”
Baili Boggs came in second with a time of 30:22.50. Also running for the Lady Bears were Ally Alred (fourth, 32:16.18), Amanda Caudill (fifth, 32:34.81) and Hailey Madden (sixth, 36:51.88).
Harlan’s Makenna Jackson and Jackson Huff were the top local competitors in the middle school races. Jackson finished fourth in the girls race with a time of 15:51.25. Emma Owens (16:47.88) and Mia Pace (17:12.81) came in sixth and seventh, respectively.
Huff was third in the boys race with a time of 2:31.66, and John Mark Bryson came in 11th with a time of 14:18.69.
Harlan County was led in the boys race by Breydy Daniels, who came in ninth with a time of 13:36.09. He was followed by Andrew Yeary (14h, 14:46.97), Josh Pinkley (16th, 15:09.41) and Lucas Epperson (17th, 15:15.53).
Junior Sanchez paced the Black Bears in the boys elementary race, finishing fourth with a time of 9:43.62. Dashaun Smith came in sixth with a time of 9:59.25, and Ethan Lewis (11:27.41) came in 18th. Harlan was led by Dylan Cox (10th, 10:17.56) and Brody Owens (13th, 10:39.84).
Harlan’s Tess Bryson and Mallory McNiel finished fourth and sixth, respectively, in the girls race, posting times of 11:45.12 and 12:03.97. Harlan County’s Kaydie Coots (15:19.84) and Abby Sherman (16:26.47) came in 14th and 15th.
The Black Bears return to action Saturday in Lexington.
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In other action, both Harlan County and Harlan participated in a varsity-only meet at Bell County.
Lucy Bryson finished second in the girls race with a time of 25:14.9, and Ella Morton (26:52.2) came in fifth.
With most of the usual varsity squad resting, Harlan County was led by Abby Vitatoe (eighth, 28:24.4) and Laura Creech (10th, 29:39.6). Rounding out the Lady Bears’ results were Madison Roark (14th, 32:51.5), Janice Dean (15th, 32:52.1), Amanda Caudill (17th, 33:41.8), Hailey Madden (21st, 40:29.6) and Kiki Dean (23rd, 40:54.9).
Zack Carmical paced the Bears in the boys race, finishing third with a time of 20:03.1. He was followed by Daniel Joseph (10th, 22:01.3), Matt Yeary (11th, 22:04.0), Cooper McHargue (12th, 22:05.2), Andrew Crawford (24th, 26:58.9) and Sergio Torres (27th, 31:54.7).
Charles David Morton led Harlan, finishing fifth with a time of 20:51.8. Jackson Huff (20:52.1) finished sixth.