For the first time in school history the Whiteoak High School boys cross country team is headed to the state tournament. In addition,Wildcat sophomore Weston Blair had a top 15 finish Saturday at the Division III regional championships held in exceptionally muddy conditions at Pickerington North High School.
Whiteoak entered the meet as Division III Southeast District champion and while the dominant district win looked promising for the regional meet the Wildcats were firmly in the sixth spot when looking at all the other teams in the meet and only the top five teams advance to the state, according to coach Doug Hughes.
“I spent a long time breaking down every team and every runner and every way I mapped it out we were in either sixth or seventh place and Garaway was in fifth,” Hughes said. “Earlier in the season we lost a close place to a talented Westfall team and the next invitational our only strategy was to go after them. The kids bought in, were very focused and we beat Westfall by one point to win the Southeastern Invitational.
”Fast forward six weeks and the task was quite lofty. We were going to go after Garaway, but Garaway was the Division III East District champs (and) also a known state power in the last decade. The last 11 years they have been seventh or better at the regionals every single year, four-time regional champions, six-time state qualifier and two times finished top three in the state meet. To make it even more unlikely to knock off, their top five runners were all seniors and earlier this season at Pickerington they handily defeated us by 86 points and an average of 33 seconds per runner. So tall task to say the least. But we were ready and the three-plus inches of mud worked in our favor and made the course very slow and a huge mental and physical challenge. We got over the extreme muddy conditions as soon as we got there. The mud wasn’t going to be a negative factor for us.”
Whiteoak was led by Blair who took 15th overall out of 126 runners with a time of 17:59. The good news was the top 20 finish earned Blair a trip to the state meet individually. The bad news though it was six spots behind Garaway’s No. 1 runner. Landen Eyre was next at 21st (18:17), but Garaway still had a three-pot lead after the top two runners. Robbie Raines was No. 3 finisher for Whiteoak and finished 57th (19:20), leaving the Wildcats 10 spots down. Christian Price, though, was right behind Raines and took 59th (19:22) to pull Whiteoak exactly even with Garaway after four runners.
But Hughes said the ‘Cats’ depth came up big again as both Bryce Van Hoy finished 76th (19:54) and Connor Butler finished 77th (19:54) beating Garaway’s No. 5 man and allowing Whiteoak to pull off the sneak attack for the surprise of the day and beat Garaway 164-171.
“I knew from late last season that we’d have a shot to make it this year. So many things did not go as planned, but we persevered and left no stone unturned and just kept working and working. Then when it was needed, they followed the plan each and every meet,” Hughes said. “We made a 93-point and 36-second per runner turn around on one of the better programs in the state. I couldn’t ask for an more out of these guys. A couple runners run three seconds slower and we don’t make it.
“These kids left nothing to chance and will forever be linked together and remembered. What an incredible achievement.
In the history of Whiteoak team sports there have been over 400 teams, according to Hughes. He said that before this year’s cross country team, only the 2002 boys basketball team and the 2018 baseball team had made it to the state level.
Team scores were Mount Gilead 35, Centerburg 118, Fredericktown 121, Lancaster Fisher Catholic 139, Whiteoak 164, Garaway 171, Barnesville 230, Grendview Heights 247, Rock Hill 255, East Knox 256, Tuscarawas Valley 263, Belpre 284, Waterford 288, Fairland 316 and North Adams 369.
Fairfield junior Landry Hattan finished 38th in a time of 18:49.4.
Lynchburg-Clay senior Austin Barnhill finished 103rd in a time of 20:59.6.
“Today we joined exclusive club and next week we’ll get to go compete in that state championship meet. What an absolute thrill,” Hughes said.