Black Bears seek another region sweep


Jessica Turner

The Harlan County runners left the starting line in a race earlier this season. Both HCHS teams will be among the favorites in the regional meet Saturday.

Jarrod Sherman, Contributing Writer

With more regional championships than every other athletic program in the school combined, Ryan Vitatoe’s Harlan County cross country squad is no stranger to success.

But when the Black Bears toe the starting line Saturday in the Class 2A Region championship at Boyd County High School, they will have an opportunity to do something their predecessors never accomplished: back-to-back titles.

After returning to Class 2A last year, the Bears dominated the regional championship at Morgan County on both sides as the girls claimed the third title in school history and the boys won their first.

Harlan County came into this season heavily favored, and didn’t disappoint from the start as the boys won their season-opening meet at Boyd County, home to one of the premier Class 3A programs in the state.

“We’ve talked a lot about last year, but in the sense that we aren’t going to be able to sneak up on anyone this season. We had been out of 2A a few years, and we were kind of unknown to most schools when we were moved back, and that was a benefit to us. This year there will be a target on our back,” Vitatoe said.

“It’s important we understand everyone elevates their effort at the regional meet. I’ve referenced our experience from this past track season as an example. We have to elevate our effort as well to accomplish the task we have ahead of us.”

The Bears have a triple threat at the top of the boys pack, where junior Alex Lewis and sophomores Josh Lee and James Dean have all been the top finisher for the Bears at various times this season. Lewis is the most experienced Black Bear, with four years as a varsity runner under his belt. Lee’s brother, David, was the 2011 individual regional champion on a team that was upset by Letcher Central for the title. Dean will come into the race as Harlan County’s hottest runner, having rediscovered last year’s form after struggling at times earlier in the season.

“James has really come on strong in the last three or four meets and has done a good job of setting the pace for our front pack,” Vitatoe said. “I can’t say enough about the leadership Alex has given our boys team this season. He’s done a great job of setting the tone and picking us up after any poor performances. Whether it’s a poor meet or practice performance, he’s done the work to get us right. We’re in this position this season because of that. And Josh has steadily improved and been consistently in the top 3 all season long.

“The boys have been tremendous all season, minus a few speed bumps. James, Alex and Josh have really emerged in our front pack to lead our team, and if they race well Saturday they all three can be on contention for the individual title.”

Freshman Zackary Carmical has had a breakout season after moving into the varsity lineup last year.

“Zack has done a tremendous job this season. He’s been much more consistent this season and has done a good job of filling his role for us,” Vitatoe said.

The Bears seem to find one surprise runner every year, and the 2016 edition is freshman James Chasteen. In his first season of cross country, Chasteen has become a mainstay on the varsity team.

“James has been a huge addition to our program this year. He’s one that I had watched over the years in other sports that I knew would be a good runner,” Vitatoe said.

Seniors Dalton Shepherd and Seth Sanders round out the boys squad. Shepherd is a three-year starter, and Sanders is in his first year as a varsity runner after narrowly missing out on a spot in 2015.

“Dalton and Seth have been steady contributors all season long. They’ve done a great job of filling their role and it will be important they do so again Saturday,” Vitatoe said.

The boys have come up short in a couple of championship races this year, but Vitatoe is confident that his squad will embrace the opportunity Saturday.

“It’s a matter of trusting the training we’ve done this season and applying it to this meet,” he said. “Each guy has to be focused on doing their job. The races we’ve struggled in, it’s been due to not being mentally prepared. We can’t approach this meet with a lackadaisical attitude. It won’t end well for us if we do.”

The Bears’ top challenger last year was Powell County, and the Pirates, along with Johnson Central, figure to be in the mix again this year.

The girls have followed their usual script, improving steadily throughout the season despite battling injuries that have created a bit of a revolving door in the bottom half of the squad.

Harlan County has been led in each race the last two seasons by either senior Allison Cornett or sophomore Phebe McHargue.

“They both have the opportunity to be in contention on Saturday. They’ve done a good job of pushing each other every race this season, but they’ll have to really work together the last mile,” Vitatoe said.

Junior Breezy Epperson and sophomore Katie Graham are also seasoned veterans. Epperson, in fact, is aiming for her third regional championship, having been part of the 2012 team as a seventh-grader.

“Both Breezy and Katie have grown up with this sport. Their experience is invaluable,” Vitatoe said. “They’ve done a really good job of working together through the season to lead our second pack of runners.”

The Lady Bears’ surprise of the season has been sophomore K.K. Johnson. Like McHargue, Johnson is a basketball standout who has made a seamless transition to distance running.

“K.K. has been another huge addition to our program. She’s stepped up and taken pride in being in the top five, and she has run incredibly well in the last few meets. She’s very competitive, and that plays a big part in how she performs.”

Junior Jordan Blevins was hampered by hip problems through track season and into the late summer, but has regained her stride as the season has progressed.

“Jojo has steadily improved the last few weeks, dropping her time consistently. She has championship experience from last year and I look for her to continue to improve on Saturday,” Vitatoe said.

The other newcomer to the varsity squad is freshman Shiann Westfelt, one of several options Vitatoe had for the final varsity spot before injuries to other runners cemented her position.

“Shiann has been very solid in her first year of cross country as a freshman. She’s gotten better each week. She’s got a real future in this sport,” Vitatoe said.

Johnson Central finished second to the Lady Bears last year and should be in contention again this year, along with an improving Letcher Central team.

After running two meets at the regional championship site, Vitatoe said his team will have to focus on pushing through the last mile after tackling a long, grueling hill.

“This is a mostly flat course, with the exception of a long climb near the 2-mile mark, which is followed by a flat, fast mile around the school,” he said. “Closing out that last mile is crucial for us. We have to be mentally prepared to finish hard. It’s those types of things that decide championships in this sport.”

The boys race is set to start at 1:30 p.m., followed by the girls race at 2:15.