HCHS teams finally healthy going into region

The Harlan County cross country squads expect to be at full strength Saturday when they toe the starting line at the Class 3A Region 7 championship meet. That’s significant because it’s been such a rare occurrence in 2017.

After dealing with a rash of injuries and other setbacks through the early part of the season, the Black Bears have slowly rounded into form over the last few weeks, culminating in their best performance of the season last week at Middlesboro in their final regular-season outing.

“This has been a challenging season, from realignment to the massive change in personnel, but I feel like we’ve done a good job staying focused,” coach Ryan Vitatoe said. “I knew this season would be a process, but I was also confident we had the potential for our teams to be in the discussion for state. It appears the light has come on at the right time. Both teams are running very well, and I feel like we can do very well Saturday if we’re focused.”

On the boys side, senior Alex Lewis and junior Josh Lee have both exploded during October, becoming the fifth and sixth runners in school history to clock a sub-18:00 5K. Sophomore Zack Carmical, the only other boy with postseason experience, has also rounded into form after struggling through the early part of the season.

The rest of the team is made up of young, new faces. Freshman Caleb Brock, eighth-grader Matt Yeary and seventh-graders Cooper McHargue and Daniel Joseph have all been mainstays on the varsity squad this season and have shown significant improvement.

“Our vets have been great this year, but I can’t say enough about how these young kids have stepped up. I’ve had to throw them in the deep end of pool this season, and they’ve done a great job of adapting and learning how to compete,” Vitatoe said.

After collecting back-to-back titles in Class 2A Region 7, realignment moved the Black Bears up a class this year. Vitatoe expects the top five teams to advance to the state championship meet.

Madison Central, led by sophomore Conner O’Shea, and North Laurel, paced by senior Zack Collins, have separated themselves from the pack and should be considered the regional front-runners. The Bears will be competing for a state berth with several teams, including Whitley County, South Laurel, Pulaski County, West Jessamine and Johnson Central, who moved from Harlan County’s old region along with the Bears.

“I think these kids should definitely go into this meet knowing we’ve beaten every team necessary to advance at some point this season. We need to respect how good everyone is, and go in ready to race another challenge,” Vitatoe said.

Inconsistency and injuries have particularly plagued the Lady Bears throughout the season, as only two girls – senior Breezy Epperson and sophomore Shiann Westfelt – have finished every race.

Epperson and Westfelt will be joined on the line by juniors Katie Graham and Katelyn Hensley. All four girls were part of last year’s team that finished second in the Class 2A Region 7 race. Also running Saturday will be freshman Abby Vitatoe, eighth-grader Ariel Madden and seventh-grader Cadance Ferguson, all of whom will be running their first regional title meet.

“The girls are absolutely good enough to advance,” Vitatoe said. “This will be the only the fourth time this season we’ve ran our full varsity team. I think we’re finally healthy, so I’m anxious to see how that translates.”

Johnson Central defeated the Lady Bears for the regional title in Class 2A last year but lost several key runners from that squad to graduation.

South Laurel has the region’s top runner in freshman Phoebe McCowan and should favored to repeat after upsetting Madison Central last year. North Laurel and Pulaski County will also be in the running, along with the Lady Bears and West Jessamine.

“The thing about racing in this region is staying sharp for the full race,” Vitatoe said. There’s no opportunity to have a soft spot anywhere in the race like we could in our old region. Every step should be uncomfortable and with purpose. If we do that, I like our chances.”

The Class 3A Region 7 meet will be held at Cave Lake Park in Monticello. The girls race is slated to begin at 4 p.m., followed by the boys race at 4:45.