Harlan County brought home a pair of championships Saturday in the 2A, Region 7 races at Morgan County High School as both the Bears and Lady Bears rolled to victories.
The Lady Bears took six of the top 11 spots to finish with 31 points, 16 ahead of second place Johnson Central. Letcher Central was third with 48 points. Knott Central was fourth with 116 points. The regional title was the third for HCHS, following championships in 2010 and 2012.
“The girls had a remarkable turnaround in the second half of the season after a slow start early in the year,” Harlan County coach Ryan Vitatoe said. “They endured the loss of some key people from last year, a new race strategy and injuries throughout the season, but they persevered and brought us our third title. They have been fantastic all season, even when we were struggling early on. Their attitudes were great and they continued to work hard. I can’t say enough about the leadership Emma Day has given this season as our captain and how much her attitude helped us to get back on track. She loves her team, and today she refused to drop out of the race after pulling a hamstring about a mile in because she ‘didn’t want to let her team down.’”
Phebe McHargue, a freshman, led the HCHS contingent with a time of 22:49 to place third. Allison Cornett and Breanna Epperson took the next two spots, with times of 22:55.80 and 23:08.20, respectively.
Katie Graham and Taylor Rowe rounded out the top 10 with Jordan Blevins finishing 11th. Emma Day was 21st.
“Every single girl in uniform ran beautifully; they were on a mission coming into this meet,” Vitatoe said. “Every girl ran the strategy beautifully that we had designed for today. We got huge races out of Phebe, Allison, Katie, Breezy, Taylor and Jojo today. You can’t single out one of them because they were all so fantastic; each one of them either ran a (personal record) or their season best time in this meet. These girls all love each other and they wanted to win for each other. They’re a special team.”
Johnson Central’s Mckaylin Pierce won the girls race at 21:46.50. Letcher Central’s Kacey Troutt was second at 22:13.90
Harlan County took four of the top 10 spots in the boys race, finishing with 41 points, well ahead of second place Powell County and its 65 points. Johnson Central was third with 66 points, followed by Leslie County with 75, Letcher Central with 138, Perry Central with 160, Breathitt County with 184 and Knott Central with 211.
The regional championship was the first in school history for the Bears and the first for a team in the county school district since Evarts in 1995, a team that included Vitatoe.
“I’m so very proud of this team,” Vitatoe said. “We’ve talked all year about what it would mean to be the first team to bring home a regional championship and how that would pay tribute to the teams who’ve came before them. They’ve been a very special group to coach, they’ve really ran for each other all season, and they’ve worked incredibly hard to achieve this goal. It truly is an historic day for the boys’ program.”
Freshman James Dean led the Bears, finishing fifth with a time of 19:01.30. Alex Lewis was seventh at 19:27.30, followed by Dalton Shepherd taking eighth at 19:38.90 and Zach Hunting placing ninth at 19:40.40
Josh Lee was 12th and Cody Howard placed 13th. Zachary Carmichal was 24th.
Powell County’s Brandon Baker won the boys race with a time of 18:02.70, followed by Johnson Central’s Sean Curtis Leslie County’s Shane Wilson and Johnson Central’s Jacob Rice.
“I can’t say enough about how they’ve sacrificed at times to run our strategy. It’s not easy to get a group of guys to buy into the idea of pack running, but they did, and they worked all season to perfect it, and today it paid off. Each guy stepped up and did his job beautifully,” Vitatoe said. “James and Alex have done a fantastic job of setting the bar for the guys this season, and all the guys fell into place to do their jobs that made this possible. Cody Howard, Zach Hunting and Dalton Shepherd amazing races today that helped cement this victory. Our motto all season has been ‘Do your job’ and today all seven guys stepped to the plate and accomplished the goal they’ve worked so hard to achieve.”
Both HCHS will advance to the state meet next weekend at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
“As a program, we’re incredibly proud of were we are right now. I am hopeful that kids out there are taking notice of the success the kids on this team are having and want to come out and be part of it. We want to continue to grow; we want this program to continue to climb upward on a state level,” Vitatoe said.
“I’m so proud of these kids. It’s been an honor for (assistant coach) Jarrod (Sherman) and I to work with them this year, but we now have to shift our focus to the KHSAA State Championships this weekend. I asked them after the race Saturday if this is enough. I don’t want them to be happy to just be at the state meet. Our focus has got to be to climb upwards in our overall finish at state when we have the privilege of competing there.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134