HCHS boys capture regional cross country title


Photo submitted Members of the Harlan County High School regional championship cross country team include, from left: from left: James Chasteen, Seth Sanders, Alex Lewis, Josh Lee, Dalton Shepherd, James Dean and Zackary Carmical.

Josh Lee and the Harlan County cross country boys team created a symmetrical bookend to their season Saturday.

After opening the season in August with a second-place finish by Lee and a three-point victory at Boyd County, the boys copied those results in the Class 2A Region 7 championship as they claimed their second straight regional title, overcoming a less-than-stellar outing to edge Johnson Central 34-37.

“I’m proud of our kids and their ability to pull out a hard-fought win to capture this title,” Harlan County coach Ryan Vitatoe said. “We were flat the majority of the race, and maybe the travel played a part in that, but we found a way to win.”

Lee, a sophomore, led for much of the final mile before Powell County’s Brandon Baker reclaimed the lead in the final 300 meters and held on for his second consecutive individual championship with a time of 18:10.12. Lee posted a time of 18:23.68, 15 seconds ahead of Johnson Central’s top finisher, Sean Curtis (18:38.40).

“Josh had a great race and was in it until the end for the individual title. It will be great experience for him for the future,” Vitatoe said. “He has the potential to be in the thick of it for the next two years.”

Junior Alex Lewis placed fifth with a time of 18:55.10. The difference for the Black Bears was excellent pack running in the middle, with freshman James Chasteen (19:08.96), senior Seth Sanders (19:15.05), senior Dalton Shepherd (19:37.00) and sophomore James Dean (19:45.56) claiming the eighth through 11th spots. Freshman Zackary Carmical (20:15.02) finished 14th.

Vitatoe gave a nod to Chasteen and Sanders, both of whom set new personal records.

“James Chasteen and Seth were huge for us today. I’ve stressed all year the importance of picking up your performance if you see a teammate struggling, and they did that without question,” he said. “I don’t think we win without their performances.

“That’s what I’ve enjoyed about this team; they’ve done a good job of lifting each other when necessary.”

With their second-place finish, Johnson Central will also advance to next week’s state championship meet, as will Letcher County Central and Powell County, who tied for third with 103 points apiece.

“I think it’s very possible to be a top-10 or top-12 team at state, but our effort and performance will have to be the best it’s been all season,” Vitatoe said. “There’s no room for half-effort or lack of focus when you’re at the state meet. We will have to be dialed in and ready to run.
“It’s not easy to win a regional championship in any sport, and these guys have made history by snagging two in a row. I’m hopeful there are kids out there who see what we’re trying to do and want to be part of it.”

Individual qualifiers on the boys side – the top five finishers on non-qualifying teams – are Pike Central’s Kevin Keathley, Perry Central’s Weston Sizemore, Pike Central’s Cory Roberts, and Leslie County’s Austin Stevens and Joey Eldridge.

The Harlan County girls came up a little short in their bid to repeat, falling to Johnson Central 36-45.

The Lady Eagles’ win wasn’t without a good deal of adversity. Leading comfortably and closing in on her third straight championship, senior Micailyn Pierce turned a corner with about 300 meters to go and collapsed, reportedly from heat-related illness.

The injury allowed Pike Central sophomore Kaitlyn Keathley to claim the win with a time of 22:17.21.

Even with their top runner out, Johnson Central placed three in the top 10 (Kelci Blair, fourth, 22:50.59; Allie Wells, sixth, 23:19.99; Olivia Burchett, eighth, 23:56.31) to claim the win.

“We were just out of sync from the start,” Vitatoe said. “I knew it would be a quick start, and our plan was to be in contact with Johnson Central at the large hill, then make our move. They got away from us, and for the first time this season we couldn’t claw our way back. I tip my cap to Johnson Central; they were hungry and wanted the win.”

Sophomore Phebe McHargue was the Lady Bears’ top finisher, coming in seventh with a time of 23:34.81. She was followed by Breezy Epperson (11th, 24:16.21), K.K. Johnson (14th, 24:54.84) and Katie Graham (15th, 25:19.40). Rounding out Harlan County’s results were Jordan Blevins (18th, 26:14.36), Shiann Westfelt (20th, 26:58.34) and Allison Cornett (21st, 27:05.06).

“These girls have worked incredibly hard this season, and I know they’re disappointed to miss their goal, but we’ve had a great season,” Vitatoe said. “We’ve dealt with a ton of injuries this season and still will be able to finish our season at the state meet. I told them Saturday there are tons of schools and runners who would love the opportunity we still have in front of us. I’m proud of them; they’ve given everything they had to represent their school this season.”

Both teams will advance to the state meet, along with third-place finisher Powell County (64 points).

Individual qualifiers are Keathley, Leslie County’s Kinsey Forgey and Madison Little, Letcher Central’s Gracie Smith, and Pike Central’s Cassandra Newell.

The state championship meet is set for Saturday at the Kentucky Horse Park. The Class 2A boys race is set for 11:30 a.m., followed by the girls race at 12:15.