KEARNEY, Mo. — Jackson Letcher gave a thumbs up to his coach and then closed out his race.
In a stunningly fast Class 4 Sectional 4 race, the Platte County junior felt comfortable with a 17th-place finish Saturday, Oct. 28 at Jesse James Fairgrounds. He finished right in the middle of the top 30 runners, who advance on to this weekend’s Class 4 Missouri State Cross Country Championships.
Letcher will be a third-time qualifier, and he made the cut with his personal-best time on the course. All-state (top 25) will be the goal at state after coming in 75th and 38th the previous two years.
“I’m a lot more confident, but this year, everyone seems a lot faster than last year, so it will be a lot harder to go all-state,” Letcher said.
The field looked fast in perhaps the state’s deepest sectional.
Blue Springs senior Victor Mugeche ran away from the field to win in 15 minutes, 45.20 seconds, while teammate Oaklee Hauschild was second more than 20 seconds back. Letcher posted a time of 16:42.30 and continued his late season progression.
Letcher struggled at certain points early in the season before regaining form — and confidence — down the stretch.
“I’ve just not been running well and been sick,” Letcher said. “I ran better at Jeff City, and that made a difference.”
Park Hill South put three individuals in the top 30 but ended up taking the whole team to state. After finishing fourth in District 8 the week before, the Panthers were third in the final team standings Saturday to grab one of the four automatic team berths for this weekend.
The team total of 116 edged Staley by two, Lee’s Summit North by three and Liberty by six in a crowded fight for the final two spots.
Rockhurst (47) and Blue Springs (58) easily finished first and second, but Park Hill South senior Eli Guzman took fifth to be the first finisher not from those teams. He passed Liberty senior Ryan Flood late, helping Park Hill South pass up three teams that finished better than them at District 8.
“I listened to my teammates yell about who was ahead of me,” said Guzman, who became a four-time state qualifier. “I looked up and tried to go for them. I felt great that whole time, and when I saw Flood in front of me, I knew it was game time, time to run him down.”
Park Hill South’s senior heavy lineup helped earn the first state berth for the team since 2014.
Guzman and senior Ewan Frick (25th, 16:49.10) will be the lone holdovers from that squad, while senior David Rouse (15th, 16:39.30) helped round out the Panthers’ top three. Frick will be a third time qualifier (2014, 2015 and 2017), while Rouse made it for a second straight season.
Park Hill South junior Christian Lutdke (41st) and sophomore Bret Worley (51st) rounded out the team score in a 75-runner field.
After finishing fifth in Sectional 4 last year, Park Hill South set the goal at state. The runners nervously waited for the validation after Saturday’s race but felt good about the performance, regardless of placement.
“We knew where we needed to be,” Guzman said. “You always hope for the best, but realistically, it was a tough feeling (waiting for the results). It’s been a hell of a ride. We talked about running like this race is the last thing you’ll ever do. I think those guys did that.”
Platte County’s team season ended at District 8 with a disappointing fifth-place showing. The fastest team in program history, the Pirates continued to make strides as one of the smallest programs in Class 4 but couldn’t quite hit the desired breakthrough.
Nick Bjustrom — one of two seniors in the top seven — finished his career with a personal-best 17:24.50, but the state cutoff came at 16:55.80 on a cold morning. However, Platte County sophomore Evan McPhatter (52nd) and Matthew Sullivan (65th) also gained valuable experience that could pay off next season.
Bjustrom, McPhatter and Sullivan were all first-time sectional qualifiers.
“They’ll learn that it’s a scary race, and you need to go out fast. Definitely,” Letcher said. “I’m excited for next year, too. We’ve just been getting better and better as a team every year.”