BY ROCKY STANLEY
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
ASHLAND Cross country seniors Caleb Handley and Mary Alice Thornburg walked away from their final Ashland Invitational with great satisfaction.
East Carter’s Handley sprinted down the finish chute to win the boys’ 5K at Wildwood Park for the first time Tuesday night.
“This is his favorite course,” East Carter coach Tersa Morse said. “I think he likes the hills. That drives him. When he comes out here, it’s kind of his game.”
Earlier, Ashland’s Thornburg finished runner-up to junior teammate Bekah Howard in the race for the third consecutive year.
“This being my last home meet, I gave it everything I had throughout the race,” Thornburg said. “I pushedmyself every step of the way. I wanted to make sure I left it all here.”
Despite some slippery spots on the course, Howard posted the top time — 20:24.8 — in her three-year run of Ashland Invitational titles.
“Even though I didn’t feel my best during the race, it turned out great,” Howard said. “The course wasn’t really that bad. The little bridge was super slick. A couple of spots were pretty muddy, but I thought last year was worse.”
Howard won that one in 20:54. This year, the Ashland Invitational was postponed for a week after heavy rain.
Sunshine and high temperatures helped dry out the course Tuesday after more rainfall. Girls varsity runners, like younger divisions earlier, encountered hot and steamy conditions.
Howard trailed East Carter’s Riley Brown and Russell’s Jordan Riley during the early stage.
“I took the lead in the first mile,” Howard said. “ I just knew to run fast on the flats because when you get to the hills it’s pretty rough.”
Thornburg followed her across the finish line in 21:10.7.
“I’ve been coaching her several years,” Phillip Caudill said. “She’s a great girl and hard worker. She does the endurance sports — track, cross country and swimming.”
Ashland’s one-two punch remains strong. “Every single day we have each other and it makes both of us better,” Howard said. “We always push each other.”
Both runners were coming off strong recent performances at Cabell Midland and last week’s Franklin County Invitational at Kentucky Horse Park — the State Meet course.
“Bekah beat four former state champions in that race,” Caudill said.
Ashland, ranked No. 1 in Class AA earlier this season, lacked enough runners to field a team Tuesday due to injuries. Freshman Hayley Fielding has a hip injury but is expected to return Saturday at Rio Grande. Eighth-grader Aubree Hay is expected to be out until Oct. 13 with a foot stress fracture.
“We’re looking forward to the day when we get everybody back,” Howard said. “It’s more fun when the whole team can compete.”
Greenup County finished ahead of Spring Valley and East Carter for the girls team championship in a small field.
“They’re doing awesome,” said Lady Musketeers coach Josh Coleman. “The girls put in a lot of work during practice.”
Katie Adkins led the team, placing 10th in 24:05.
Brown finished third, Riley fourth and West Carter’s Elizabeth Middleton fifth.
A bright sun sank behind the treeline before the start of the boys’ race, creating cooler conditions.
Handley surprised himself with a victory after twisting his right ankle twice while running Saturday.
“It felt fine today,” he said. “I wanted to get a good time. Once I got to the final stretch in first place, I let it all go. I know there was some tough competition that wasn’t here, like Boyd County, but it still feels great.”
Russell dominated the team standings, claiming the next four individual spots behind Handley.
Leading the way were juniors Tyler Conn (18:37.10), Carson Kidwell (18:38.8) and Jared Goodman (19:48.9).
“I was really pleased,” said first-year Russell coach Bill Rice. “It’s probably one of the best meets we’ve had so far this year. Tyler has worked hard and become a very good runner.”
The team got a scare after the race. Rice said Conn broke out in hives and was taken to the hospital.
“He’s OK now,” Rice said later.
Eighth-grader Matthew Sloan of the Red Devils placed fourth in 19:51.7.
“Matthew has been practicing with us, but also running in middle school,” Rice said. “He asked if he could run up for this meet and i said, ‘Absolutely.’The work he’s put in proved itself tonight.”
Sophomore Eli Pridemore rounded out Russell’s top five by placing eighth in 20:14.8. The race had 44 finishers.
Overall, the Red Devils filled 13 of the top 30 spots.
“I’m proud of all of them,” Rice said of his squad. “I think they all had a good race.”
Aidan Dorsey placed sixth in 19:56.6 for team runner-up Ashland.