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Boys cross country: GW's Brafford seeks state championship

By Nick Brockman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The years, like step after step, fly by for George Washington senior Matt Brafford, the state's No. 1 Class AAA boys runner.

Brafford will look to cement his high school career legacy and finish on top, as individual runners and teams from across the state compete in Saturday's Cross Country State Championship at Cabell Midland.

"It's really kind of a shock, because four years has gone by so fast," Brafford said reflecting on his career. "It's kind of a shock to realize I only have one more cross country race in my GW uniform. It's definitely going to be a hard thing to do, especially once I cross the finish line.

"That could be the last time crossing a high school finish line with a GW symbol on my chest, so it's definitely going to mean a lot and it's really going to sting, because it's meant a lot to me to run at GW for four years and just have the success that I've had."

Brafford, a four-time Region 3 champion, enters as the state's top runner in his class, according to Jefferson's Andrew Milliron ranks second and poses the largest, if only, threat to Brafford's state title hopes.

Last season, Brafford finished second (15:42.10), 44 seconds behind three-time individual champion Jacob Burcham, of Midland. Now, Brafford said he's ready for his opportunity atop the podium stand.

"To be able to say I'm No. 1 would mean so much to me, just because last year I was No. 2 and the past three years, I've been behind Jake," Brafford said. "To finally be able to move up to that No. 1 spot and have the spotlight for one time, it would mean a lot to me."

In Class AAA team standings, even without Burcham, defending champ Midland - currently ranked second - figures to play a prominent role, though No. 1 University enters as the team to beat.

"Without a doubt, they're definitely the odds-on favorite simply because they were the state runners-up last year and basically lost nobody," Knights Coach Chris Parsons said.

Each of University's top five runners rank within the state's top 31 as depth extends throughout the roster.

"They have five guys that are well under 17 minutes," Hurricane Coach Jason Henley said of University's squad. "Most of their team is under 16:30. They're the team to beat. They showed it last year finishing up in that second spot and then return basically the whole team. It's theirs to lose."

Behind University, Midland and third-ranked Hurricane will look for opportunity should University stumble. Jefferson and Morgantown represent contenders looking for a top-three spot, too, Parsons said.

For the Redskins, the meet marks the second straight year the boys program has joined the girls squad at the state championship.

Henley said that accomplishment didn't look possible until the boys team took a quick turn toward improvement a few weeks ago.

"There was a midway point in the season where it wasn't coming together very well, but watching them the last three or four weeks since we ran at North Carolina in the Great American Cross Country Festival, they've just become a very solid team," he said.

Other local Class AAA schools attending the meet include seventh-ranked Winfield, No. 9 Ripley, Capital and GW.

Generals sophomore R.J. Weiford, ranked 11th in the state, will look to lead Winfield into the top five with a solid performance, as Weiford represents a legitimate All-State threat.

In Class A/AA, Buffalo sophomore Hayden Harrison is expected to earn All-State honors as he enters the meet ranked sixth in the state.

"I want to run a 15:53," Harrison said of his goal time. "It's going to be hard. I'm going to have to push myself. I've never ran that before."

Not much separates the top four runners in the class: Abe Merinar (Bridgeport), Johnny Hogue (Ritchie County), Brettley Harris (Webster County) and Jason Weitzel (PikeView). Merinar enters ranked first, though Hogue represents the state's top returner with a third-place finish at last season's state championship.

Buffalo and Region 4 champion Charleston Catholic, both unranked, will represent area teams. Irish senior Caden McClanahan, ranked 17th, poses the best local threat to join Harrison as an All-State runner.

Top-ranked Bridgeport appears to be the favorite, with defending champion Fairmont Senior a solid No. 2. Ritchie, Keyser, defending runner-up Frankfort and Williamson follow in a tight pack among the regular season standings.

The boys Class A/AA race will begin approximately at 1:45 p.m., with the Class AAA race to commence approximately at 10:45 a.m.


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