HCHS sending 3 runners to 3A state competition

One of these days, the Harlan County Black Bears are going to find the success as a team that has eluded them in regional championship meets at Cave Lake Park. The number of times they’ve come close is going to make it that much sweeter.

Like the girls four years ago, the boys squad came up one spot shy of qualifying for the state championship meet as a team, finishing 15 points behind South Laurel for the fifth and final team berth in the Class 3A Region 7 championship Saturday in Wayne County.

“I’m really proud of this team. They did such a great job this season in staying focused on their goals, both individually and as a team,” coach Ryan Vitatoe said. “We had so many obstacles thrown at us this season, but they really did a great job. This group, boys and girls, proved they could compete in this region.”

Two Black Bears did nab individual spots in the state meet. Senior Alex Lewis finished 14th overall with a time of 18:09.57, and junior Josh Lee (18:13.78) finished 18th. The duo took the top two individual spots, awarded to the top five finishers off non-qualifying teams.

“Alex and Josh ran great, and I’m happy for them. They’ve been so consistent this season with training and it paid off for them. I’m glad they will finish their season at state,” Vitatoe said.

Zack Carmical, a sophomore, narrowly missed joining his teammates, posting a 32nd-place finish with a time of 19:09.56 and missing by one spot.

Rounding out Harlan County’s results were Caleb Brock (34th, 19:17.75), Cooper McHargue (47th, 20:12.23), Matt Yeary (55th, 21:45.10) and Andrew Crawford (64th, 25:34.04).

“Zack and Caleb were great today,” Vitatoe said. “And I can’t say enough about Cooper, Matt and Andrew. Their improvement this season was amazing. (McHargue and Yeary) shaved over four minutes off their time throughout the year. Those guys, along with Daniel, have gained valuable experience this year that makes me very excited about our future.”

Madison Central dominated the race, posting the top three finishers and five of the top 10 en route to a 51-point victory over second-place West Jessamine. Garrett Puckett (16:38.19) was the individual regional champion, followed closely by teammates Conner O’Shea and John Gula. North Laurel claimed third place, followed by Pulaski and South Laurel, respectively.

The other three individual spots went to Johnson Central’s Bryson Hackney and Whitley County’s Jackson Estes and Jared Wilson.

Harlan County was without the services of seventh-grader Daniel Joseph, who was injured.

The story on the girls side was similar, with Breezy Epperson nabbing an individual berth and middle schoolers Ariel Madden and Cadance Ferguson coming up just short.

Epperson, a senior, held off a challenge by Whitley County’s Abigail Stone in the home stretch to claim the final individual spot. She finished 33rd overall with a time of 24:33.50.

“Breezy ran a great race today. She was focused and attacked for the entire race, and it paid off for her,” Vitatoe said. “I’m really proud of her; she set a great example for our girls going forward.”

Madden (24:41.13) and Ferguson (25:03.31) finished 35th and 42nd, respectively, and were the second and sixth girls below the cutoff.

Katie Graham (45th, 25:43.82), Shiann Westfelt (46th, 25:49.92), Abby Vitatoe (49th, 27:08.32) and Katelyn Hensley (51st, 27:24.85) also participated for the Lady Bears.

“Cadance and Ariel were on the cusp. They came a long way this season, and their potential as runners is high,” Vitatoe said. “I was proud of Katie, Shiann, Abby and Katelyn as well. They did a great job this year.”

Madison Central defeated second-place Pulaski County by 31 points, led by second-place overall finisher Abby Hill. South Laurel freshman Phoebe McCowan posted a time of 19:15.15 to win the individual title for the second straight year.

West Jessamine, South Laurel and North Laurel finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively, to qualify for the state meet. In addition to Epperson, individual bids went to Madison Southern’s Mary Beth Melhuish and Southwestern’s Jasmine Akin, Kaeona Phelps and Lydia Patterson.

The state championship meet is set for Saturday at the Kentucky Horse Park. The Class 3A girls race begins at 1:30 p.m., followed by the boys race at 2:15.

“I hope to see Alex, Josh and Breezy focused and ready to race one last time Saturday. I know they’re prepared, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they finish the season,” Vitatoe said.