Prep cross country: GW's Brafford, Capital's Panger lead field

By Nick Brockman
Tom Hindman
George Washington's Matthew Brafford (24) and the rest of the George Washington Invitational field hit their stride on Thursday at Meadowood Park.
Tom Hindman
Girls competitors run through leaves during the George Washington Invitational Thursday at Meadowood Park. Tom Hindman photo
Tom Hindman
Capital's Peyton Panger runs ahead of the field at the George Washington Invitational Thursday at Meadowood Park.
Tom Hindman
George Washington's Matthew Brafford leads the field at the George Washington Invitational Thursday at Meadowood Park.
Tom Hindman
The field at the George Washington Invitational run past farm equipment at Meadowood Park Thursday.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- George Washington senior Matthew Brafford blazed a path to victory, earning a win under hot conditions in his final race at the Patriots' home course at Meadowood Park in Tornado Thursday evening.Brafford entered the George Washington Invitational as the state's No. 1 AAA boys runner and though he missed his goal to set a course record, the heralded harrier blew away the field en route to victory. On the girls side, Capital junior Peyton Panger, ranked second in AAA, ran an equally impressive race to claim individual title honors and lead the Cougars to the team championship."It feels really good, especially my senior year, to go out there and win it," Brafford said of his pace-setting 15:30 finish. "It's a real honor to come out here and win your own invitational. It means a lot, especially since it's my last year and GW hasn't had a whole lot of successful runners in a long time. It feels good to come out here and win it for your high school."Brafford finished 1 minute, 27 seconds faster than his closest competitor, Cody Gillespie, of Oak Hill."He just dominated the field," GW Coach Nick Bias said. "It's pretty nice to see a kid you coach go out there and pretty much take control from the start, lead the whole way and never look back. I think that's pretty awesome, to see the confidence he has."All the hard work's paying off. I tell him all the time, 'Fall champions are made in the summer,' and he takes that to heart."While GW's regional foe Ripley won the boys team championship by three points Thursday, Brafford said he was impressed by the Patriots' second-place effort. "I felt that the team did really well," he said. "Our team's been training very hard this season. Nick Bias, our coach, he's been pushing everybody as hard as they can take it, because he wants everybody to do their best, and I think this year we have a really good shot at regional."The Capital boys finished third behind strong performances from senior Marshall Sharp (fourth, 17:14) and junior Michael Ruhnke (seventh, 17:27)."The heat and the speed of the race really wore people out," Sharp said of the conditions. "I think we did really well, but I think there's also always room to improve. I'm happy with what I did, but I think we can do better."For Ruhnke, his time marked a personal record as he overcomes plantar fasciitis.
"I felt amazing," he said. "I never felt that good on a 5K before."Buffalo's Hayden Harrison (third, 17:04) and Conner Lamb (sixth, 17:25) also ran strong as the Bison placed fifth of 10 teams.In the girls race, Panger finished in 19:23, a minute ahead of second-place finisher Aidan Payton of Nicholas County.Panger said she took a less aggressive approach to the race with another meet awaiting at Rio Grande (Ohio) Saturday.
"I was trying this race (easier) because we have a race Saturday as well," she said, "so I tried to go out slow and see if somebody else could take the lead."It was really nice to be around other people and look behind me and see that there are girls on my team right behind me. They've gotten so good and it's really nice to see them do so well."In addition to Panger, Capital sophomores Mary Keeton Lane (fourth, 21:46) and Riley Simmerman (fifth, 21:47) finished in the top five to propel the Cougars to first as a team.Ripley finished second in the girls team standings, with host GW third."I think we stacked up pretty well," Panger said of the Patriots against their regional competitors. "I think what helps is that our team has come closer together as a whole. We might not get three people in the top 10 - we actually did today - but we come in four and five and then we'll be 12 and 13, and then 25 and 26. We're really closing the gaps and it's really going to help come regionals."Capital will race Saturday before hosting its own invitational at Camp Virgil Tate on Wednesday.
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