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Prep cross country: 2 of state's top runners compete at GW event today

By Nick Brockman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Two of the state's top individuals runners will compete, though not against each other, at today's George Washington Cross Country Invitational.

GW senior Matthew Brafford ranks first among Class AAA boys runners, according to www.runwv.com, while Capital junior Peyton Panger lists second for AAA girls. Both runners are expected to defend their elite status today at the Patriots' home meet at Meadowood Park in Tornado.

"Both of those kids will be in the mix at the state meet, so I think having two of the top runners in the state, boys and girls, there is going to add some buzz," GW Coach Nick Bias said. "The No. 1 boy and No. 2 girl in the state. I think between Matt and Peyton, they should put on a good show."

While fans and spectators look to watch the individual talents of runners like Brafford and Panger, the teams will be focused on how the stack against each other. Many Class AAA Region III teams will attend in a preview of sorts of the regional championship, though that race will be held at Ripley, not GW.

"It's going to be a good meet to see what these teams do have and, hopefully, we can match up well against them," Capital Coach Jared Smith said.

In addition to host GW and its rival Capital, other Class AAA Region III teams expected in attendance include Oak Hill, Ripley, Riverside and South Charleston. St. Albans, of Region IV, is expected to compete too, as well as Class A-AA Region IV teams Herbert Hoover and Sissonville.

For Bias and GW, the event represents just the team's second competition within the Mountain State this season "We've only had one race in West Virginia," Bias said, "so I'm kind of excited to see some other teams in the state, to see how we shape up against people in our area and region."

On Saturday, Brafford finished in 15:11 to claim sixth overall at the Trinity/Valkyrie Invitational in Louisville, Ky. Today, Bias said Brafford hopes to break the Meadowood course record set by former Cabell Midland runner Jacob Burcham last year.

"His goal for this race is he wants to break Burcham's course record he ran at regionals last year," Bias said. "I think Burcham ran 15:17, so he would like to beat Burcham's record, get the course record and get it at our home meet."

For Panger, she enters today's meet with three consecutive individual event championships, Smith said.

"She's focused, she's driven and she's not going to let any distractions come her way," he said.

"She has big goals. This is the most positive I've ever seen Peyton since I've been here at Capital and even before. She's really upbeat. Obviously, she's had three straight victories by dominating performance. She's extremely strong right now, but her goal is she ultimately wants to beat all those Morgantown girls. She wants to go after (No. 1 AAA runner Amelia) Paladino from University."

With Panger in the lead, Cougars sophomores Riley Simmerman and Mary Keeton Lane figure to follow, as well as others, as Capital expects to contend both today and at the regional meet. "My girls team all around, we're very sound," Smith said. "I have two sophomores that are very strong that are right behind Peyton and I think that we have the best team in the region."

For GW, seniors Adrienne Arnold and Rowan Maher hope to derail Capital's plans, as the Patriots' top threats.

On the boys side, GW expects to compete for today's team championship, as well as at regional, though Capital and Ripley will provide plenty of competition.

"You see the times and stuff online, but when you see it in person, it's a little bit more revealing," Bias said of stacking against the opposition.

For eighth-year coach Bias, he said he's confident in his boys squad, but health has been a concern.

"I've just been trying to be patient on my boys so they can get back healthy and hopefully, by regionals, we'll all be peaking at the right team," he said.

Both Chad Hollandsworth and Will Walker have battled mononucleosis symptoms, though are expected to return to full form by regionals. Senior Ryan Humphrey is also expected to miss until conference championships. Meanwhile, Cai Carena and Connor McKinney have contributed solid performances throughout the season.

Likewise, Capital's Michael Ruhnke has worked to overcome setbacks with plantar fasciitis this season.

With improving health, Ruhnke and fellow Cougars runner Marshall Sharp will look to lead a hopeful Capital bunch.

"We're going to keep on fighting and we can only do what we can do," Smith said. "These are talented teams, but we're going to go down with a fight to the end. My kids are talented and they rise up for big occasions.

No matter the outcome today, Smith, like Bias, is confident his athletes will give their best as they move toward the postseason.

"If all goes well, we'll come out the victors and if not, we're going to do everything that we can do to get there," Smith said.


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