• 41°

Bears hoping for return trip to state

While the cast of characters changes a little each year, the Harlan County boys cross country squad has been remarkably consistent over the past six seasons. Even a jump from Class 2A to 3A in 2017 didn’t slow them much, as the Bears qualified for state as a team at the higher level last season after a one-year break.

The Bears rolled through the regular season in 2019, garnering top-five finishes in all but one meet. Now, coach Ryan Vitatoe is eager to see if his team is ready to take the next step in the Class 3A Region 7 championship meet Saturday at Wayne County.

“These guys have worked incredibly hard during the summer to put themselves in this position,” he said. “They pack really well, and that has been the key to our success throughout the year. These guys have been a joy to coach.

“We’ve spent a lot of time talking this season about what a return trip would mean for our program. They have ran great the last three weeks. I look for a strong showing Saturday.”

Junior Caleb Brock has stepped into the front-runner role for the Bears this fall.

“It starts with Caleb. He’s done an excellent job all season long coming off an impressive track season. He’s a solid runner, and an excellent role model for our guys to follow.”

Senior Zack Carmical, the most seasoned member of the team, split his time between cross country and soccer this year but has remained a force on the course.

“Zack is one of the most decorated cross country athletes in school history, running on two regional championship teams. He’s split time this year but has done an excellent job,” Vitatoe said.

The team has benefited from the emergence of a strong sophomore group, led by Daniel Joseph.

“Daniel has done a tremendous job this season,” Vitatoe said. “He was our third or fourth guy last year, but has stepped up to be a consistent number two. He became only our seventh guy (in program history) to go under 18 minutes a few weeks back.”

Matt Yeary returned to his varsity position after healing from a broken collarbone sustained during track season.

“Matt has been solid throughout the season. He had a slow start, having been off most of the spring and summer, but he’s really came on late in the season,” Vitatoe said.

Perhaps the two biggest surprises for the team this year have been sophomore Lucas Epperson and eighth-grader Logan Hensley.

“I can’t say enough good things about Lucas and the job he’s done this year,” Vitatoe said. “He was outside the top seven last season and really dedicated himself during the off-season. He shows what hard work can do.

“Logan has been a surprise breakout guy for us late in the year. He works hard and has become much more consistent, which has been the key, especially after losing Cooper (McHargue) and Austin (Crain) to injuries.”

Sean Cooper, a senior, rounds out the varsity squad.

“Sean has been a solid contributor to our program for the last five years,” Vitatoe said. “I’m happy his hard work has put him in position to run region as a senior.”

For the second straight year, the Harlan County girls team has faced a barrage of injuries and adversity, but the coach said he feels the team is beginning to find its way forward.

“We have made significant strides this season on the girls side, despite a slew of injuries. We’ve struggled the last two years but have found our footing as a program,” he said. “The goal for this girls team is to advance as a team to the state meet. We’ve been unsuccessful the last two seasons in accomplishing that goal, but this team has a great chance of doing it this year.”

This year’s squad has benefited from the emergence of one of the region’s top young talents, as seventh-grader Peyton Lunsford became the owner of the school record last week at Middlesboro.

“Peyton has been an incredible addition to our team,” Vitatoe said. “She is a natural runner and has a very bright future ahead of her. I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface of her potential yet. To come out and break the school record as a seventh-grader is pretty amazing.”

Freshman Cadance Ferguson and sophomore Ariel Madden have adjusted to leadership roles as the team’s most experienced athletes despite their relative youth.

“Cadance has had an excellent season as well,” Ryan Vitatoe said. “She works hard and is in position to make a third straight trip to the state meet.

“Ariel has come on strong in the last three weeks. She always has a positive attitude and works hard. She’s another young girl who we’ve had in the program for several years and is experienced way beyond her years.”

Caitlin Rice, a freshman, is in her second year as a varsity runner.

“Caitlin has had a great season this year. We’ve managed to keep her healthy, and she enters the region running the best she has in her entire career,” Vitatoe said.

Sophomore Riley Key and freshman Lainey Garrett have moved into full-time varsity roles for the team this season and have shown steady improvement.

“Riley has been a tremendous addition to our program. She’s a competitor, and I love that she brings that toughness to our team,” Vitatoe said.

“Lainey has worked so hard this year and has improved a great deal. She put the miles in this summer and it has definitely paid off.”

Baili Boggs, the team’s lone senior, is the team’s vocal leader, according to Vitatoe.

“She’s meant so much to our program over the last three years,” he said. “She’s had a great season and has improved a ton.”

Both squads have faced regional competition repeatedly throughout the season. Vitatoe said confidence is key for his teams to be successful Saturday.

“For both programs, we have to approach this meet with the understanding and belief we are as good as anyone else there. If we compete, I like our chances,” he said.

The meet will be held Saturday at Cave Lake Event Park in Monticello. The boys race is set to begin at 4 p.m., followed by the girls at 4:45.