Preston cross country teams has strong showing in Mountaintop Combo Invitational

KINGWOOD, W.Va. — For the past two seasons, Preston High runner Cole Friend has established himself as one of the top cross country runners in the state.

Friend has nabbed two consecutive top-ten finishes at the Class AAA state championship meet, but one milestone the senior had yet to hit was his first individual win in a varsity cross country meet.

On Tuesday, he finally managed to get that out of the way.

During the final race at the Mountaintop Combo at Preston High, Friend paced a pack of 62 runners and seven teams with a mark of 16:58, narrowly edging out Fairmont Senior runner Ethan Kincell by just over five seconds.

“It feels great,” Friend said. “I knew I could have taken one some time last year or this year. The first meet of the season, [Hurricane senior] Wyatt Hanshaw outkicked me and that was just not me racing it smart enough — the last mile, I should have kicked it in harder.

“This time, I knew exactly where to kick it in and my coaches were there yelling at me as soon as I hit that spot. I took off and opened it up a bit and that secured it.”

Friend said he and his team entered the race with the mindset of using it as a workout — and while his time was 48 seconds off his personal best — he exceeded his expectations for his pace and time on his home course.

“Sophomore year, I ran about 15 seconds slower on this course than I did today and I wasn’t going out,” Friend said. “Philip White, who won the regional here for University two years ago, only ran ten seconds quicker than my time today. So I’m feeling pretty happy.”

The Knights took second place as a team on the boys’ side — finishing just five points short of winning. Big 10 Conference rival Fairmont Senior won the event with each of its top five runners earning a top-10 overall finish.

“Fairmont is one of the top Class AA teams in the state and we’re close,” Preston coach Paul Martin said. “We’re training really hard to earn some points, and we’re trying some different tactics with the boys in training. We’re coming, but it does hurt a little bit to get beat on our home course.”

“Our second and third guys didn’t really go all out until they hit ‘Hillacious’ — that’s the big mountain on our course,” Friend said. “If they start out a bit harder, they’ll be able to jump up a couple of spots.”

The Knights will see Fairmont again this fall at the Big 10 conference championship, where they will look to redeem Tuesday’s loss.

“I think the complexion of the race changes a great deal because we’ll have 13 teams in there,” added Martin. “You’re going to have Bridgeport in there — who wasn’t here today — and when you mix all these programs together, it’ll be interesting. It all depends on who gains the most between now and the conference meet.”

On the girls’ side, the Knights eeked out the team victory by a two-point margin, with Fairmont Senior taking runner-up honors. Preston sophomore Allie Martin would pace the Knights with a third-place finish, crossing the line at 21:45. East Fairmont’s Erykah Christopher would earn the individual win.

“I don’t think our top two ran well. I don’t think Allie ran well and Chloe [Stark] collapsed and didn’t finish,” Martin said. “I get that it’s hot and it’s a tough course, but there are a lot of other kids out here running, too. If anyone should know the constraints of our course, it should be our athletes and we need some more leadership from them.”

“I think we need to do some longer distance and more intense workouts, and we need to take the time to get us all healthy,” Preston’s Allie Martin added. “As leaders, we also definitely have to encourage the other girls around us.”

Despite the victory coming alongside an unsatisfactory performance, the Knights found a bright spot in the performance of their freshmen class, led by fifth-place finisher Abby Nolan (23:16).

“She ran terrifically today,” Paul Martin said. “It’s been volume with her. We’re not doing much with workouts as we are running every day, increasing her miles and methodically running long runs. She’s just beginning to tap her potential.”

Nolan credited her improvement to Coach Martin and the program’s environment, which she said has been conducive to development.

“I’ve definitely improved from middle school with running more miles and having a better coach,” Nolan said. “It was a little intimidating at first … racing against these 17- and 18-year-olds, but I just like to think of it as something that helps me go faster.”