JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – While Blue Springs senior Simon Belete was being swarmed by well-wishers with congratulatory hugs and pats on the back for winning the Missouri boys’ Class 4 state cross country meet, one classmate couldn’t resist reminding the newly crowned champion that he had been the better runner in the eighth grade.
Belete laughed at the ribbing because he knew on this Saturday, he was the one standing atop the podium at Oak Hills Golf Center after crossing the finish line in 15:48.16.
“Eighth grade was my first year running cross country, and I only did it to please my mom … I wanted to do basketball only,” Belete said. “So coming out and being somewhat successful in eighth grade drove me to run in high school, and eventually I dropped basketball and became a full-time runner. And that’s when I saw my improvement junior and senior year. It’s really fun to see all that hard work paying off.”
The years of hard work led to Belete leading nearly the entire race. He jumped to the front of the pack heading up the first hill and continued to set the pace throughout. He hit the first mile in 4:56, which he said was 10 seconds slower than he was expecting.
The second mile was still slightly off his preferred pace, but no one else wanted to take charge of the race so Belete maintained his position and pushed toward the finish.
“I knew that usually the leader at the mile isn’t the winner, but I felt I could get in control of the race,” Belete said. “I’m a paranoid runner. If I’m in the lead, I’m always wondering who’s going to come up and get me. And that pretty much pushed me through the whole race. I knew people were going to make surges and try and take the lead from me, and that really helped.
“I didn’t know how much of a gap I had. I was really un-confident because Chris Mooneyham and Spencer Haik have one of the greatest kicks in the state. I thought, ‘Oh man, they’re going to pass me on this last straightaway. At least it was fun for most of the race.’”
Glendale’s Mooneyham and Haik did close on Belete in the final 100 meters, but he had built enough of a gap that he was able to hold on for a five-second victory.
Mooneyham cross the finish line second in 15:53, and Haik made up some ground after the final curve and passed Blue Springs’ Stephen Mugeche to take third in 15:56.
“I wasn’t really expecting Simon to get out that fast and hold it, so I just focused on his back and got as close as I could by the finish,” Mooneyham said. “I thought he would fade, but he didn’t. He’s a strong kid and congratulations to him.”
Haik was all smiles after breaking up the Blue Springs duo and finishing as the state’s top teammates.
“It was awesome because we trained all season for this, me and Chris, trying to be the best 1-2 in the state, and we proved it today,” Haik said.
As the runners turned toward the finish line, Mugeche was still sitting in third place, but he could see Haik closing in. He also got a glimpse of Belete and his lead provided Mugeche
“It was just amazing,” said Mugeche, who claimed fourth in 16:01. “We were about to turn around to 100 meters left and I looked back and saw Haik and thought, ‘Oh no, he might catch me,’ and he did which is a sad thing, but I looked up in the distance and saw that (Blue Springs) purple and gold. Once he finished I felt great. Haik caught me, but I wanted to finish and not get caught by anyone else.
“We’ve been doing 1-2 almost the whole season. Now there were schools like Marquette and Glendale who have nice duos too, so they just came up there and pushed us. It was a lot different running with people.”
Blue Springs entered the meet as one of the top contenders for the team title. After Belete and Mugeche, the Wildcats’ James Barnett finished 10th and Devon Sesler was 27th. But the gap to the fifth scoring runner was too great and the Wildcats were nipped by SLUH 98-101.
Blue Springs coach Frank Gallick said it was natural to feel some disappointment with the final score so close, but he also gushed with pride at what his team was able to accomplish.
“I know they will be asking themselves if they had gotten a guy here or gotten a guy there if it would be different, but I told them, ‘You did what you could do,’” Gallick said. “I know they ran their best today.”