By Jeff Keeling
As he blurred through a turn just past the two-mile mark at Saturday’s AAA cross country championships, Daniel Boone senior Ben Varghese appeared to be working his plan to perfection.
Varghese was matching defending state champion Brodey Hasty and Hasty’s Brentwood teammate Taylor Vroon stride-for-stride with just over a mile to go in the 5,000-meter race. But on a day when temperatures were unseasonably high, Varghese’s blood pressure dropped too low and he collapsed several hundred meters later.
First to pass the crumpled star was Science Hill’s standard-bearer Alex Crigger, who would record his second-straight top 10 state finish, coming fourth at 15:49. Hasty ran the fastest state time in at least a decade, 15:09.07, with Vroon a few steps behind in 15:10.71.
Not long after came Boone’s next four runners, senior Zac Branham, sophomore Chance Bowman, senior Caleb Sells and sophomore Matt Huff. Along with senior Connor Loyd, who normally places sixth and out of the scoring for Boone, they pulled the team – expected to battle for second – to a sixth-place finish.
“It was unfortunate for Ben and for the team, but for the other guys to hold their own and compete like they did and still come out with a sixth-place finish – most teams could not have pulled that off losing their number one runner during the race,” Boone Coach Len Jeffers said. A finish by Varghese would have left Boone third, just a few points behind Wilson Central.
While Bowman and Huff were the only underclassmen on his varsity, Jeffers said he’s looking forward to next year. “Those seniors have already pulled them in and the underclassmen have bought in. It’s going to be fun moving on with them to see where they are in a couple years.”
Varghese, who finished fourth at state last year, was treated and released at Vanderbilt Hospital and is doing fine, Jeffers said Sunday. His falling clouded but did not mar strong performances by a handful of local teams who had qualified for state – University High’s boys and girls, Science Hill’s boys and girls in addition to Boone.
Crigger, who battled Varghese all season for regional dominance, registered the fourth top-20 finish of a stellar high school career. His 15:49 was 24 seconds faster than his seventh-place finish last year, and he also finished 14th as a sophomore and 18th as a freshman.
“I was trying to go out hard with the Brentwood pack and Ben,” Crigger said of his strategy. “About halfway through the race they started pulling away and I was just trying to stay in sight of them.”
Science Hill’s boys sneaked into state with a game performance at regionals and finished 15th Saturday. “Just being able to rely on the team and having them there made it so much more special,” Crigger said. He was followed by sophomore Thomas Seeley, freshman Aaron Jones, junior Gavin Ledford and senior Cole Benedict.
Crigger’s four-year classmate Halle Hausman posted her third straight top-10 finish to lead the girls’ team to 10th in the standings, finishing fifth in a personal-best 18:21. The team was missing its normal number two runner, Julia Simpson. Joining Hausman in the scoring were junior Gabrielle Mardis, senior Casey Miller, freshman Destiny Haller and senior Taylor Canfield.
Hausman’s time was nearly a minute faster than her seventh-place finish last year and 38 seconds better than her best time on the course, a sixth-place finish in 2014. She also finished 15th as a freshman in 2013. The girls’ race was faster overall than 2015’s as Dobyns-Bennett freshman sensation Sasha Neglia blistered the course in 17:32 to win by 18 seconds. D-B was second in the team standings.
Earlier Saturday, under sunny skies and with temperatures ideal for racing, University High’s girls ran to a ninth-place finish, led by junior Bekah Owen’s personal-best 20:41, which was good for 20th. She was followed by fellow juniors Ali Burns, Cora Alison and Ashley Daniel, sophomore Julia Gabel and freshmen Anna Davidson and Camilla Rivas.
UH’s boys were led by sophomore Porter Bradley’s 16th-place finish (17:00). The team finished 12th and Bradley was followed by junior Pablo Rivas, sophomore Caleb Strickler, freshman Will Owen, sophomore Colin Daniel and junior Nick Pohlgeers.
Owen’s time was a full 1:27 better than her 2015 state performance, and Bradley bettered his 2015 mark by 51 seconds.
“We had many solid performances today that helped build upon our program getting to the next level,” UH coach Maggie Whitson said.
Like Jeffers, Whitson ended the season bullish on the future for teams that had all underclassmen.
“We have had a fantastic season that has brought on very positive changes and accolades for our runners,” she said. “I believe in what we are doing and know we have more good races ahead of us.”
Crigger and Varghese will see each other at least once more this fall, at a two-mile race in Knoxville Nov. 18. Crigger will race in the Foot Locker South Regional Nov. 26 in Charlotte, while Boone’s team is still trying to choose between that race and the Nike Cross Southeast Regional in Cary, N.C. the same day.
Jeffers said he and co-coach Ray Jones received dozens of calls and texts from concerned coaches and others in the cross country community Saturday and Sunday.
“There’s been a huge number that have contacted us, checked on Ben and sent their prayers and thoughts and well wishes for him.”
He said he’s happy for Varghese that his senior season didn’t really end in Nashville Saturday.
“Ben’s got the heart of a lion, and he’ll be back to fight another day,” Jeffers said. “Probably can’t wait to get back.”