Girls capture state crown with inspired performance in Wamego
De Soto cross country coach Chris McAfee thanked the parents, the fans and the fellow DHS staff that attended Saturday's state cross country meet, and finally he thanked his athletes, all the while trying to hold back tears.
The De Soto girls team had minutes before won the Class 4A state championship. Later McAfee would explain the key moments came during the week prior to the race -- that the secret was in the way his team prepared for and executed the final race plan.
But is that even fair?
The groundwork to De Soto's victory -- the single greatest accomplishment in Wildcat cross country history -- lay both in the week prior to the state meet and the month prior. It lay in the 16 minutes it took the entire championship squad to scurry across the course and in the hot summer days those same runners labored in more than a month ago.
The dream of a state championship wasn't born last week, but with months of planning and years of hard work. It was realized Saturday, on the golf course of the Wamego Country Club.
"We've worked so hard for this," Chesney Burgweger said. "Every morning during the summer, it was all hard work and it paid off. We knew we could get so much better, and here it is."
De Soto delivered defending champion Baldwin its most severe Class 4A defeat of the season, distancing the Bulldogs by 16 points. The Wildcats utilized medal-worthy performances by Carly Stanley (seventh), Lauren Karnitz (eighth) and Morgan Frehe (15th) and strong races by all seven runners to earn its first-ever cross country state championship.
Burgweger was 28th. Trish Roberts was 35th. Becca Roberts was 45th and Maddy Frehe was 61st in the 104-runner field.
"I felt at the beginning of the summer that our girls had a shot," McAfee said. "That was a pretty bold statement at the time because everyone was ready to give Baldwin the first-place trophy."
De Soto's chances of winning the meet ran the gauntlet throughout the season. McAfee said his Cats were considered long shots, mainly due to the strength Baldwin was returning from an overwhelmingly talented squad a year ago.
Baldwin won last year's title with 70 points -- 30 better than second-place Wamego and 69 better than fifth-place De Soto.
That Bulldog team graduated only its seventh-best runner and was the hands-down favorite in the Kansas Cross Country Coaches Association's preseason pool.
De Soto was picked fourth in that pool, then moved up to second later in the year, never passing Baldwin.
The girls didn't do much to change anyone's mind early, but tamed the Bulldogs now in three of the last four meetings.
"The first time we beat Baldwin was at KU Rim Rock, and it really sunk in then," Trish Roberts said. "After that we just thought 'We've done it once,' and that made it easier."
Staying ahead of Baldwin Saturday was the primary goal, and it showed from top to bottom.
De Soto's top three runners -- Karnitz, Frehe and Stanley -- have found success sticking with Baldwin's No. 2, Kelsey Verhaeghe. That strategy paid off again at state as the trio literally swarmed around her for the vast majority of the race. They finally all broke apart late and dashed for the finish line, all three crossing ahead of Verhaeghe.
"We ran the hills a little different -- we burned up them and went easy down them, so everyone that caught us on the downhill, we caught them on the uphill," Karnitz said.
It's backward logic from the way athletes usually tackle a hilly course such as Wamego's, but the reasoning summed up De Soto's focus.
"I don't know why we did it," she said. "That's what Verhaeghe did, so that's what we did. We followed her. That was our plan. Every race we pick a spot where we're going to pass her and this time we decided we'd do it with 800 meters left.
Verhaeghe and Madison Shoemaker finished ahead of Burgweger, and Calleigh Durr was right behind, but Trish Roberts rounded out De Soto's scoring runners well ahead of Baldwin's No. 5.
Even the final two Cats -- whose points aren't tallied when calculating the team's score -- were clearly gunning for purple. Becca Roberts slipped in one second ahead of both Julie Hill and Corinna Papps, and Maddy Frehe was one second in front of Baldwin's final runner, Misty Emery.
It all amounted to just a few points and it all took place in just a few seconds, but the Cats said that's what made the difference.
De Soto was well ahead of third-place Wamego's 113 points, and faced no serious threats from other area rivals. Tonganoxie was eighth in 211 and Eudora was tenth with 213.
"They ran incredible. They just ran absolutely incredible," McAfee said. "The race was won this week. Before the meet we always talk to them about the race, but this week, they sat us down and said 'We're going to tell you guys how it's going to go.'
"Where was the race won? It was won inside themselves. They were very focused from the first girl to the seventh girl and they did exactly what they needed to do."
McAfee found out the results about 15 minutes after the final runner crossed the finish line, and then ran with assistant coach Chad Brecheisen to where the seven runners and a mass of green-clad fans had gathered.
He gathered the group in tight and the runners smashed together up front. They were nearly unanimously happy with their individual performances, but none were certain as to the official news.
Slowly, glancing around, McAfee revealed what he knew: "You're looking at the new state champions," he said.
Later the team again huddled together, only moments after receiving the biggest trophy of them all. Diminuitive Morgan Frehe struggled to handle it by herself, but rarely was only one set of hands touching the oak behemoth.
Fingers canvassed it, feeling out the letters that spelled out the team's accomplishment, and the girls marveled that the small statue wasn't made out of plastic, but real metal.
Real. The dream was gone, and now it was real.
The Cats were state champions.
"It still doesn't feel real," Karnitz said. "It just feels like another meet because we kept saying it was just another meet. It hasn't hit yet. Yeah, we have a trophy, but now what?
"It was just great, and we did it all together."