By Andrew Manzo Marion's boys cross country team won the second annual Marion Invitational Saturday.

By Andrew Manzo

When Marion head coach Eli Baker sat down with his boys’ cross country team the first week of the season, he asked them to set some goals.

“One of the things they mentioned is winning a meet,” Baker said. “We thought we had one a little over a week ago. That didn’t happen for us. So I told them what better place to win then to come to our home invitational and win.”

The Wildcats made good on their goal as they placed five runners in the top 12 to capture the second annual Marion Invitational at the Crisp Sports Complex Saturday morning.

Marion took first place with a score of 40 points, edging out runner-up Waterloo (53) by 13 points. Carbondale was third (103), Hamilton County fourth (110), Benton fifth (124) and Goreville sixth (132). Webber Township and Pope County rounded out the eight-team field but neither registered a team score.

“I said to them I was just going to leave the trophy in my room because we’re going to win this thing,” Baker said. “So we went into it thinking we were going to win. They went out there and everyone ran well. We won and they’re ecstatic.”

As for the girls race, Waterloo had six individuals finish in the top 13 as the Lady Bulldogs cruised to the team championship with 38 points.

Carbondale, which won last year’s inaugural event, ended up second (63) followed by Hamilton County third (77) and Marion fourth (108) while Benton and Webber Township failed to record a team score.

Back to the boys, Benton’s Dylan Hartley won the individual title in a time of 17:58 and pulled away from Marion’s Traxton Taylor, who crossed the finish line 16 seconds later in 18:14 to place second.

Taylor led after the first mile and hung tough with Hartley throughout the difficult three-mile course. That was an encouraging sign for Baker to see.

“Traxton is so athletic and he has the ability to run in the front of the pack at the beginning and just hang on, but he doesn’t understand the pain threshold yet,” Baker said of the sophomore. “He is starting to learn that he can and should be in the front. After the first mile he was leading the race, and he hadn’t done that before. So this race is a huge step for him believing that he does belong in the front and that he should be there every race.”

Also for the Wildcats, Matt Mitchell stopped the clock in 18:54 to finish seventh and Brockton Whitehead followed 12 seconds later in 19:06 to place eighth.

Adam Gill took 11th in 19:29 and Jaxson Davidson ended up 12th in 19:40 to round out Marion’s top-five scoring runners.

Marion’s final two individuals to conclude the race were Michael Jepsen in 18th (20:24) and Jerrod Harris 29th (21:36).

Goreville was paced by Stefan Messmer’s 10th-place finish in 19:17 and Cody Smith was 14th in 19:51 out of 41 runners.

“Everyone is progressing well and dropping ridiculous time. It’s amazing how much time they are dropping,” Baker said. “I have some guys dropping four or five minutes off their time in three weeks. We’ve been running a little faster in practice with more tempo runs, trying to get them used to that faster pace.”

Former Johnston City Middle School standout Kaitlyn Schutt, now a Benton Rangerette, won the girls race by 38 seconds in a time of 20:20.

Mallori Chamness led Marion with a fifth-place finish in 22:03 while Emily DeMattei was 17th in 24:54. Also for the Lady Wildcats, Nicole Raubach ended up 27th (26:38), Carly Crabtree 28th (26:55) and Alina Schoenecke 31st (28:22) out of 34 runners.

“This is the best our girls have run here, so it’s hard for me to ask for much more than that right now,” Marion girls coach Jenna Griffith said. “That should set us up well for conference since we host that meet again this year. We continue to drop time every meet.

“Mallori is still working to get where she needs to be by the end of the season. She just needs to continue putting in the miles because she is dropping time in that second mile and being more consistent throughout the race.”

Marion returns to action in the rescheduled Benton 4-Class Meet beginning at 4 p.m. Monday.