McKINNEY — A season’s worth of training in the heat gave way to a postseason that began under some of the area’s coldest temperatures in months.
A distinct chill was in the air Tuesday morning as 10-5A’s cross country runners took to Myers Park for the annual district meet — the first race of the postseason for a conference that includes some of the top runners and teams in Class 5A.
With temperatures in the high 30s, coupled with some drizzling rain, state-ranked Lovejoy defended its district titles and swept the 10-5A meet for the third consecutive year. The Leopards and Lady Leopards totaled 25 and 26 points, respectively, and totaled 10 runners inside each varsity race’s top 10.
“I’m super proud. With those elements, you never know if someone is going to buckle or if something bad could happen,” said Carly Littlefield, Lovejoy girls head coach. “We expected to win, but we know McKinney North and Prosper Rock Hill are super strong, so we had to be mentally tough and not let those elements get to us.”
With the UIL trimming the number of regional qualifiers — a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic — to just two teams and the top 10 individuals, first-year program Prosper Rock Hill occupied the other team qualifying spots after notching second place for its boys and girls programs. McKinney North and The Colony will also advance runners to the Region II-5A meet, scheduled for Nov. 9 at the Jesse Owens Memorial Complex.
“I thought they did a great job. Getting three individuals out was awesome,” said Jessica Richards, North head coach. “They all had to step up pretty big today, because looking over everyone’s top 5K times, we had some kids finish higher than they were ranked.”
The pre-meet rankings favored Lovejoy and Rock Hill, both of whom are ranked in 5A’s top 10 by the Cross Country Coaches Association, and the Leopards and Blue Hawks didn’t disappoint.
The Lovejoy boys continued their torrid string of district championships after placing four of the top six runners on Tuesday. Senior Trevor Malik led all Leopards with a 16:13.20 — a reassuring finish for head coach Logan Kelly after Malik was sidelined by injury for most of his junior season.
“Trevor was injured last year but had a really great sophomore year,” Kelly said. “He’s really stepped up this year and knows he’s our No. 1 guy, so he has taken the reins of leading the pack. We’ve had some others step up as well, and it’s been really fun to see.”
Even in cold temperatures, the Leopards didn’t stray from their pack-minded approach to racing. That contributed to the 5K’s fourth- through sixth-place finishers with senior Cameron Kennedy (17:11.05), junior Riley McGowan (17:20.55) and junior Tate Barr (17:26.84) all impressing on Tuesday.
“We just told the kids to not worry about time — just focus on placement, be tough get out there and compete. It’s really all you can do in conditions like this,” Kelly said.
The top honor in the boys race, however, belonged to Rock Hill. Senior Blake Barnes, a regional qualifier last year at Prosper, became the first student-athlete to capture a district championship in school history after running a 16:04.98 to finish more than eight seconds ahead of the pack.
“It’s a really big accomplishment for him. He’s a selfless individual who trains hard and is really involved with the team,” said Zach Morgan, Rock Hill head coach. “He’s a very talented individual who knows where he stacks up against that top competition and when to pour it on out there. He did a great job running to the win today.”
Meanwhile, Lovejoy sophomore Amy Morefield built off her breakout freshman season, a year where she upset three-time state champion London Culbreath at the district meet and went on to finish third overall at the state meet, by defending her 10-5A championship with an 18:37.21.
“She’s super sweet and humble. She’s about the same fitness as she was last year but has been faster in training,” Littlefield said. “We’re hoping she’ll have her breakout at regionals and state, similar to how she did last year.”
Not far behind Morefield was teammate and freshman Kailey Littlefield, whose first-ever high school postseason race netted a second-place finish and an 18:46.26. Juniors Rachel Malik (19:45.09, sixth) and Hailey Malik (19:55.94, seventh), plus senior Amelia Carothers (20:02.12, 10th) also finished in the top 10 for the Lady Leopards.
Rock Hill seniors Alexis Svoboda (18:56.42, third) and Kirstin Towle (18:59.30, fourth) headlined the Lady Blue Hawks’ second-place team finish, while North secured a trio of regional qualifiers — including a fifth-place run from senior Sydney George (19:42.60).
“She stuck her nose into it in the spring and really committed to it after everything got cancelled and has really wanted to make the most of her senior year,” Richards said. “She’s still toying with trying to compete at the next level and has really made the most of the opportunity she has been given.”
Joining George at regionals will be senior Azlyne Garza (20:07.87) and senior Graydon Cowgill (17:35.70) — both of whom placed ninth in their respective races. The Colony sophomore Devon Judelson will represent the Cougars at regionals after placing seventh in the boys race with a 17:31.80.
Teams will have just under two weeks to recharge for regionals, where the top three teams and top 10 individuals not on a qualifying team will advance to the state meet, set for Nov. 23-24 at Old Settler’s Park in Round Rock.
“There are six or seven super strong teams this year — it’s the craziest thing,” coach Littlefield said. “For the next few weeks, we’re focusing on sharpening up and getting some speed work in. We’re going to focus on ourselves and not get too hyped up — the other teams are so good that it’s really going to down to who runs the best race at regionals and state.”