By RICK PETERSON
Shawnee Heights cross country star Jackson Esquibel knows there's several runners capable of challenging for the Class 5A individual title in Saturday's state meet at Rim Rock Farm, north of Lawrence.
But there's really only one runner that Esquibel is concerned about heading into his final race of an ultra-successfull high school cross country career.
"I think I worry about me more than I worry about other people,'' Esquibel said. "In this sport you can't really fear anyone or else they're going to get the best of you. They're going to get in your head a little bit, so you just have to believe in your game plan and commit to your game plan.
"And then once you're out there, it's just about competing. I feel like each week you keep finding something you can improve on, whether it's your first mile, whether it's how you use the hills, how you explode after the hills. Kind of through experience you learn through failures, you keep improving and you keep getting confidence in yourself.''
Esquibel, a state champ in track, is already a two-time state medalist in cross country, including an eighth-place finish a year ago, and he enters Saturday's meet on top of his game after sweeping city, United Kansas Conference and 5A regional individual titles. Esquibel was one of five underclassmen that posted top-10 finishes in 5A a year ago and one of 11 that finished in the top 20.
"I know that once I'm on a state start line you push until you have nothing left, so the goal is go out that first mile strong and then attack those hills and don't be afraid to push it when you are in the most pain,'' Esquibel said. "I think that is the most important part of that course.
"That course has a lot of hills, so it's all about believing that you're strong enough to persevere.''
The 5A boys race is scheduled for 12:20 p.m. Saturday.
Here's a class-by-class look at Saturday's state meets involving Shawnee County teams and individual qualifiers:
Washburn Rural's girls enter Saturday's Class 6A meet at Rim Rock Farm as a legitimate contender for a top-three team finish after sweeping city, Centennial League and regional team championships.
Junior individual champion Payton Fink led four Rural runners in the top nine at Wichita's Cessna Activity Center last Saturday as the Junior Blues won the regional title by a 43-62 margin over Junction City.
And now, Matt Swedlund's Junior Blues, who finished third at state a year ago, will set their sights on bringing home another team trophy on Saturday.
"Like always, you can look at the top five or six schools and you've got to have them all in the conversation for a trophy,'' Swedlund said. "Nothing is guaranteed because of all those (top) teams they're all trying to get a trophy and only three of them are going to.''
Swedlund feels like his team has done everything it can to get ready for a strong performance on Saturday.
"That's our line this week, that the hay's in the barn and you've done the work so now you've just got to go out there and send it on Saturday,'' he said. "You just go out there and give it your all.''
Fink added her second straight regional title to a second straight Centennial League victory with a regional win in a five-kilometer time of 18:01.20.
Rural also got a fifth-place finish from sophomore Emily Graf (19:53.60), a sixth from junior Rylee Ismert (20:02.40) and a ninth-place showing from junior Brooklyn Nolte (20:21.00) while sophomore Kenzie Maddox rounded out the Junior Blues' top five with a 23rd-place showing (21:25.10).
A two-time state medalist, Fink finished fifth a year ago and is expected to contend again Saturday as the 6A field tries to challenge three-time Olathe North state champion Anjali Hocker Singh.
Fink was one of 11 underclassmen that finished in the top 20 a year ago at state, including six in the top 10.
"We know (Payton's) one of the best runners in the state,'' Swedlund said. "There are five very good runners who if somebody has a good day or if somebody's mentally ready, any one of them can get it. She's in that conversation and she knows she's in that conversation.
"We kind of discuss some strategy and game-day planning, so I think she'll be ready.''
Junior Conner Olsen and sophomore Brooks Kehoe earned individual qualifying spots for the Rural boys, with Olsen posting a 14th-place regional finish (17:04.20) and Kehoe finishing 16th (17:05.10).
The 6A boys meet is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. on Saturday and the girls race at 11:45.
After bursting on the state scene as a freshman with a fifth-place state finish, Seaman sophomore Ryin Miller is on the short list of top Class 5A contenders Saturday at Rim Rock Farm after sweeping city, United Kansas Conference and regional individual titles.
The 5A field figures to be chasing defending champion Katelyn Rupe of Salina Central, who won by more than a minute in 2022, and Miller just wants to make sure she's in the mix.
"Obviously I want to win, but Katelyn Rupe is very strong, both of those Salina girls are, so my goal would be third,'' Miller said. "I would be happy with third.''
Miller won last week's regional title at Shawnee North Community Center in a five-kilometer time of 18 minutes, 20.89 seconds, leading the Vikings to a team berth for state with a third-place finish.
The Vikings also got a seventh-place regional finish from freshman Brynn Spencer (19:53.80), a 13th from junior Stella Appelhanz (20:15.73), a 17th-place showing from Savannah Sampson (20:41.55) and a 28th-place showing from freshman Alex Richardson (21:31.70) to round out Seaman's top five.
Seaman's boys also earned a team berth for state with a third-place finish.
Sophomore Brody Anderson led the Vikings with a third-place individual finish (16:43.71), followed by sophomore Jack Walker in ninth (17:10.55), junior Logan Townsend in 21st (17:52.93), junior Alex Newell in 22nd (17:54.16) and sophomore Drake Spurlock in 33rd place (18:33.07) to finish out Seaman's top five.
Topeka West sophomore Payton Rice and junior Adrian Lehman qualified as individuals for the 5A state meet.
Rice finished 10th individually in the 5A regional girls race at Brown Thursh Park in a five-kilometer time of 20:48.26 while Lehman was 14th in 17:21.47 in the boys race.
Saturday's 5A state girls race will begin at 10:35 a.m, with the 5A boys race set for 12:20 p.m.
Hayden and Silver Lake earned girls team berths for Saturday's 3A state meet at Rim Rock, with the Wildcats and Eagles finishing second and third in the regional meet at Sabetha.
Freshman Sofia Harper finished second individually (21 minutes, 06.77) and junior Elliot Wrench fifth (21:32.44) to lead Hayden to a second-place team finish while third-place Silver Lake was led by junior Tessa Gerber, who finished sixth (21:39.40), and Eagle freshman Alessandra Gerber, who was eighth (21:47.19).
Hayden also got an 18th-place finish from senior Elaina Wolff (23:26.05), a 25th-place showing from junior Ryann Newkirk (24:03.67) and a 41st-place finish from sophomore Kellyn Specht (25:15.37) as the Wildcats' No. 5 runner.
Silver Lake sophomore Kylie Podlena finished 19th (23:32.54), sophomore Breanna Ackerly 22nd (23:58.93) and sophomore Ashtynn Forgy 42nd (25:31.59).
Hayden and Silver Lake both had boys individual state qualifiers, with Wildcat senior Aiden Amis finishing fifth individually (17:18.66) and Eagle junior Aemon Coffman placing eighth (17:44.19.
The 3A state boys race is scheduled for an 11:10 a.m. start Saturday, followed by the girls race at 12:55 p.m.
SHAWNEE COUNTY STATE QUALIFIERS
Washburn Rural -- Girls: Payton Fink, jr.; Emily Graf, so.; Rylee Ismert, jr.; Kenzie Maddox, so.; Lacey Middleton, so.; Kate Muir, fr.; Brooklyn Nolte, jr. Boys: Brooks Kehoe, so.; Connor Olsen, jr.
Seaman -- Girls: Stella Appelhanz, jr.; Ryin Miller, so.; Alex Richardson, fr.; Savannah Sampson, sr.; Brynn Spencer, fr.; Elinore Stallbaumer, sr.; Hannah Wempe, fr. Boys: Brody Anderson, so.; Corbin Murrow, jr.; Alex Newell, jr.; Drake Spurlock, so.; Logan Townsend, jr; Jack Walker, so.; Joseph Yorkey, sr.
Shawnee Heights -- Boys: Jackson Esquibel, sr.
Topeka West -- Girls: Payton Rice, so. Boys: Adrian Lehman, jr.
Hayden -- Girls: Bella Coyle, sr.; Sofia Harper, fr.; Ryann Newkirk, jr.; Kellyn Specht, so.; Elaina Wolff, sr.; Elliot Wrench, jr. Boys: Aiden Amis, sr.
Silver Lake -- Girls: Breanna Ackerly, so.; Carly Blubaugh, fr.; Ashtynn Forgy, so.; Alessandra Gerber, fr.; Tessa Gerber, jr.; Kylie Podlena, so.; Raely Sterling, so. Boys: Aemon Coffman, .jr