OFF AND RUNNING
Central's Espinoza, Soroco's Kelley sprint to titles
One race was close, the other was a runaway.
Running on the new Snooks Bottom course in Fruita, the Anna Banana Invitational brought together the usual high-level cross-country field from around the Western Slope on Saturday.
The boys race came down to a sprint in the final 50 yards with Ben Kelley of Soroco holding off Evan Graff of Montrose for the win. For the girls, Central’s Ivory Espinoza led pretty much from start to finish to take the win.
With the course starting on dirt, then a section of asphalt and a return to dirt, along with soft, sandy sections and a few hills, it was a challenging course for the runners.
Graff and Kelley eased away from the lead group about halfway through the 5K and it was obvious that it would be a two-runner battle the rest of the way.
The two seniors have raced shoulder-to-shoulder for much of their high school careers in cross country and track and field events.
Graff knew he had to go early to try and get the win.
“He’s a great racer, I’ve been racing him for many years,” Graff said. “He’s got a great kick.”
With about 100 yards to go, Graff started his sprint and Kelley knew he couldn’t let his opponent get too far ahead.
“When he went, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to catch him,” Kelley said. “Coming into the final stretch, I found it in my legs and just pounded it out to the finish to come out with the win, so that was good.”
Kelley’s winning time was 16 minutes, 8.5 seconds, with Graff finishing is 16:09.5
Kelley enjoyed the new course but said the changing of surfaces made it a unique challenge.
“It’s kinda hard to get into a rhythm. The dirt is soft here and there are a lot of rocks, so you can’t really lock into a pace and get your legs going,” he said. “I could have lived without the wind today, but it’s a true cross-country course. I love it.”
Both the competitors say they miss the old course at Connected Lakes in Grand Junction.
“I kinda miss the old Anna Banana course because it was fast, probably the fastest on the Western Slope, but I don’t mind this one at all,” Kelley said.
Graff agreed: “It’s pretty nice, I like the old course, but this is still a good course.”
Central junior David Cardenas showed his late-race speed like he has in other races this season, finishing third in 16:26.4.
Montrose’s Sean Graff was fourth in 16:34.4, followed by Patrick Scoggins of Rangely in 16:36.8.
Palisade’s Brody Bittner demonstrated a strong kick in the final 40 yards to finish sixth with a time of 16:51.0. He just edged Central’s Tyman Smart, who was seventh in 16:51.6.
Bittner said he’s been steadily increasing his training intensity the past few weeks.
“These past few weeks, I’ve been trying to go a lot harder and it’s been paying off. I’ve dropped 50 seconds this past week,” he said. “I was pretty happy with this race.”
Delta’s John Ames was eighth in 17:03.3 and Palisade’s Landon Sauvage ran a 17:25.8 to place 10th.
Montrose won the boys team competition with 83 points to edge Glenwood Springs (84) by the slimmest of margins. Central was third at 94.
Earlier this season, Espinoza confessed that she likes courses with hills, so she knew exactly when she would go in the attack at Snooks Bottom.
A short but rather steep hill a little more than a mile into the race was the attack point.
“Whenever I got up that hill I just knew I had to go for it,” she said. “We ran (the course) two weeks ago and I knew the hill was there, and my coach told me that’s where you gotta go.”
The Central senior had a small lead over Glenwood Springs’ Sophia Vigil at that time. But once Espinoza got to the top of the hill, the race was pretty much over as she pulled away and ran with a sizable lead the rest of the way. She crossed the finish line in 19:18.8.
“I’m pretty happy with it, especially with the wind,” Espinoza said. “Coach said it was going to be like another hill almost, you just have to look down and go, so that’s what I did.”
Going hard up the hill and expending lots of energy was a concern, but Espinoza stuck to the plan.
“That does cross my mind and did today, that I might tire myself out on that hill but I just knew if I went too slow that I would regret it later,” she said.
Sydney Petersen of Crested Butte was second with a time of 19:44.4. Chloe Veilleux of Soroco finished third in 19:51.4.
It was a cold and windy day for the runners with temperatures in the mid-to-high 50s at race time.
Grand Junction freshman Mandy Moran had a strong race, finishing fourth in a time of 19:53.0.
“It was very cold at first and little bit windy, but I enjoyed it,” she said. “It was somewhat flat so it was a little easier than a lot of courses.”
Moran has been one of the top freshman at the varsity level at a number of races this season.
“I’ve really enjoyed (the season), it’s been a great experience,” she said. “It’s been really fun to improve my times and my running.”
Palisade had Alexis Chelle place ninth and Rebecca Hittle 10th at 20:50.9 and 21:01.3, respectively.
Summit won the girls team championship with 61 points, followed by Glenwood Springs (80), Palisade (95) and Fruita Monument (104).