Cross country running girls eye best-ever year

CHS Lady Hornets have all back from 2021 state squad

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

A highly-promising season for the Chillicothe High School cross country running Lady Hornets got off on the right foot Tuesday, setting the stage for their lone home meet of the year this coming Tuesday.

With all five runners who qualified them for the 2020 Class 3 state meet as a team available again this fall – even if not all participated in the opening outing, the Lady Hornets will look to match Charles Epps’ 1986-87 teams as the only Lady Hornets harriers to advance to state in consecutive years.

Whether this year’s CHS girls’ squad can join those two teams from a generation ago as Midland Empire Conference champions in what is now a much-deeper league field in the running sport  will be determined in about a month and a half, but that seems to be a possibility, particularly with a couple of promising newcomers in the mix for Chillicothe.

On the boys’ side, while 2020 state qualifier Hayden Simmer has graduated, second-year head coach Jennifer Dickson has a larger squad to groom, half of them being freshmen – a couple of which bring intriguing potential.

“We are excited to return almost everyone (who were non-seniors a year ago,” Dickson shares. “Our numbers are growing, as we had eight freshman (both genders) move up from the middle school program and added a few others (from older grades) who did not run last year.”

The lone local opportunity to observe the Chillicothe runners in action is scheduled for this Tuesday (Sept. 7) when the Chillicothe Invitational is to be held in Simpson Park. As usual, barring advance postponement due to inclement weather, the park’s streets will be closed for several hours in the afternoon – usually from around 3 p.m. until 6:30 or 7 p.m.

Moberly’s girls and Kirksville’s boys are the defending team champions with now-senior Brookfield distance-running ace Alexandra “Alex” Sharp the 2-times defending girls’ individual champion, while a new boys’ individual champ will be crowned. Sharp’s strongest challenger might end up being her freshman sister Samantha.

Last year’s girls’ team ended the 33-years famine between state-meet trips for the Lady Hornets, but a lack of numbers for much of the season played a role in them not being able to follow up on the program-record four meet titles earned in 2019. Only the late-season addition of then-freshman Emily Shipers, younger sister of then-junior stalwart Kadence, gave Chillicothe’s girls the minimum-necessary five girls to generate a team score.

That didn’t happen until the MEC meet, in which – amidst the COVID-19 pandemic situation – CHS was one of only two schools with enough for a girls’ team. Eleven days later, E. Shipers’ addition and the strong performances of the team’s top trio of Aliyah Briner, K. Shipers, and Juliann Gabrielson powered the Lady Hornets to a second-place finish and state-meet qualification.

While Chillicothe’s girls placed last in the 14-teams field at state, just getting there was accomplishment enough. For then.

Now, however, with not only that 5-runners core back, but some reinforcements, a district title and corresponding return trip to state is in their sights and a conference crown not out of the question, since defending runaway MEC champion Kansas City: St. Pius X graduated four of its top seven runners.

While plenty of experience, along with talent and fortitude, heavily populates the 2021 Chillicothe cross country running Lady Hornets roster, perhaps the most promising aspect is that Kadence Shipers is the only senior among the eight runners participating.

The squad’s top runner her freshman year and “battling” with Briner and Gabrielson to see who can be best on any given day the past two seasons, K. Shipers will hope to go out with a “bang” and her strongest season ever.

Thrice last season the first Lady Hornet through the finishing chute, she ran a personal-best 21:17 on the flat Rosecrans Municipal Airport course at St. Joseph in last year’s conference meet and posted a solid 22:53 at the far-more-challenging state course in Columbia a few weeks later.

Briner, now – like Gabrielson and another returning teammate, Kaylynn Cranmer – a junior, has been the fastest CHS girl in 11 of the last 14 meets over the past 1-1/2 seasons, including being champion of the Duane Kimble Invitational at St. Joseph last year.

She was the lone CHS state qualifier in 2019, running a still-personal-record 20:51.9 and then pacing the 2020 team showing last November, finishing less than a second ahead of K. Shipers.

Gabrielson also is a third-year varsity runner who often has run in a pseudo-tandem with either Briner or Shipers as a way of pacing and pushing each other. She missed being all-MEC for a second year in a row last year by less than a second in the conference race, placing 15th. She subsequently ran a better time than that at state, producing a 23:06 “PR” (personal record).

Rounding out the returnees are 2020 “late add” E. Shipers, a sophomore, and junior Kaylynn Cranmer. While their performances and placements in meets generally were not that high a year ago, both have the potential to improve and contribute for the team, even as some new, younger runners might surpass them.

Cranmer’s highlight a year ago was placing ninth in the Savannah Invitational with a personal-best time of 25:08, a clocking she approached at state (25:37).

As for new talent, sophomore Alice Hurtgen and freshmen Yoo Jung Lee and Karissa Fostek are in the fold and the first two look very promising, as talented younger female runners often do.

In this past Tuesday’s opening meet, Lee was the third-fastest Lady Hornet in the varsity race at Maryville, trailing  only Briner and K. Shipers among the five CHS entrants. She placed 15th overall in 26:21.

Hurtgen rounded out the bare-bones 5-runners team lineup for Chillicothe at Maryville and placed a respectable 20th out of 27 runners, her time only about 15 seconds off Gabrielson’s.

Fostek ran in the shorter junior-varsity race, while E. Shipers and Cranmer sat out the event.

On the Chillicothe boys’ scene, with 10 options – two of which ran extensively or exclusively on the varsity level last year, Dickson should be able to enter a team in every varsity meet.

While H. Simmer was the 2020 Hornets’ best runner by a wide margin, now-junior Clayton Savage and now-sophomore Austin Lyford were in the lineup essentially all season.

Lyford completed his first season in town by finishing 22nd at district in 20:52.9, more than 20 seconds faster than his previous best clocking.

Savage struggled at district, but preceded that with a 20:26 at conference that earned him 16th place, only two away from all-MEC status. He had his best time of the season in the opener at Chillicothe’s Simpson Park when he ran a 20:13.

Also back on the squad after being junior-varsity runners last year are senior Stephen Parkes and junior Logan Gregory.

Freshmen who have entered the program include Cain Evans, Alton Keller, Landyn Peterson, Cutter Parkes, Ashton Baker, and Carter Shipers. Three of them – Keller, Shipers, and Evans – ran in the varsity division of this past week’s season opener at Maryville, suggesting they’ll be part of a team-performance upgrade in 2021.

“This team has ben working hard and our boys especially have logged some serious mileage this summer,” Dickson commented for the C-T as the new season approached. “I am excited to see where these young teams go and achieve this season!”

At this week’s Maryville Invitational, the strong contributions of new CHS harriers nearly meant a team crown for the girls and produced a strong third-place showing for the boys.

Lady Hornets Briner and K. Shipers stuck close to each other the entire five kilometers and, as they did at state last year, finished less than a second apart –  Briner seventh individually in 25:16.78 and K. Shipers next in 25:17.23.

A bit surprisingly, but happily, ninth grader Lee was the next Chillicothe girl to finish, running a 26:21.06 in her first high school race on the very hot day. That left her 15th.

Gabrielson took 18th in 27:09.64 and Hurtgen rounded out the varsity lineup with her 20th place in 27:25.8.

When the female runners’ finishes were added up, CHS’ points total of 37 was a single point behind meet champion Mount Ayr, Iowa, which had the second- and third-place runners behind race champion Iris Alvarez of Savannah.

In the boys’ division, it was frosh Evans showing the way for Chillicothe, running a 20:44.23 to claim13th place overall.

Two spots and about 15 seconds behind him was Lyford (20:58.61) with a second ninth grader – C. Shipers – two slots behind Lyford in 21:35.2.

With two freshmen and Lyford placing that high and Savage having sat out the race, hopes for a very representative showing, meet in and meet out, were boosted.

The other varsity runners for the Hornets in the 2021 lidlifter finished one right after the other. Gregory took 28th individually in 23:16.33, S. Parkes 29th in 23:17.71, and Keller 30th in 23:20.71.

That meant a team score of 79 points for the Hornets, eight back of team runnerup St. Joseph: Benton. The easy team champ was Maryville with a near-perfect 19.

Two Chillicothe boys – Peterson and C. Parkes – competed in Tuesday’s JV race.