GW's Brafford is now the favorite at state cross country meet
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After three consecutive state championships, Cabell Midland's Jacob Burcham has gone on to Oklahoma and made life easier for the rest of West Virginia's high school cross country runners.
But that doesn't not mean Matthew Brafford wants to be known as a beneficiary. As his George Washington coach Nick Bias tells it, Brafford wants to win the Class AAA boys individual title and leave little doubt.
"Our goal all year was to win states," Bias said. "He has put himself into position to win. He's put in the work, and it's his time."
Brafford is one of several Kanawha Valley runners contending for individual titles. Others include Capital's Peyton Panger, Hurricane's Tori Dent and Anna Gordon, Winfield's Brittney McMillion and Buffalo's Hayden Harrison.
But Brafford, who finished second in last year's meet, is the best bet of that group to win his class Saturday when the state meet begins Saturday at Midland's campus in Ona.
The girls AAA race begins at 10 a.m., followed by boys AAA at 10:45. The girls AA/A race begins at 1 p.m., with the boys AA/A at 1:45.
Like most top runners, Brafford has put himself up against national-caliber competition in out-of-state meets such as the Great American Cross Country Festival in Cary, N.C., where he finished sixth.
He won a race in Centerville, Ohio, and was sixth in a meet in Louisville, Ky., where he posted his personal best of 15 minutes, 11 seconds. That was one goal, Bias said - get him to meets where he can run faster times, win or lose.
He could have won his in-state meets without breaking a sweat, it seems. He won all his meets by a minute-plus, and could have won the AAA Region 3 meet by more than two, if he so desired.
Brafford's chief competition is Jefferson's Andrew Milliron, who finished fourth in last year's state meet, 17 seconds behind runner-up Brafford.
Milliron bested Brafford in the 1,600-meter run in last spring's state track meet (behind Burcham, of course), but Brafford took the upper hand in his stronger event, the 3,200. And if Milliron wants to beat Brafford in the longer cross country race, he'll have to be ready to go hard at the starting gun.
"Matt likes to go out and take control from the very beginning, and see who'll come out with him," Bias said. "Eventually, he's going to drop somebody."
In the girls AAA race, Panger is a solid favorite to finish second. First is another matter, as University senior Amelia Paladino is running in a different orbit.
But Panger, a junior, enters the state meet undefeated and wants to eventually break 5 minutes in the mile. Coach Jared Smith said she increased her training mileage in the offseason and that, along with a lot more work running hills, has helped her immensely.
"Paladino is going to go down as one of the best in state history," Smith said. "Peyton is going for everybody, but I wouldn't be surprised if she got close to her this year."
Dent leads a Hurricane team that wants to make a run at meet favorite Morgantown, yet needs to keep rival Winfield at arm's length. Now a senior, Dent finished seventh in the 2011 meet.
Freshman Anna Gordon is also a top-10 candidate, and Joie Johnston would have been if not for a stress fracture that sidelined her for the season. Winfield has several runners who could crack the top 20, even the top 10: Brittney McMillion, Rachael Englund, freshman Alyssa Rittinger and Krissy Rich. McMillion and Englund finished 15th and 18th, respectively, in 2012.
In girls AA-A, Peyton Mullen can crack the top 10 if she's fully recovered from a recent bout with pneumonia. Freshman Hannan Gacek is another top-20 candidate. On the boys side, Catholic has Caden McClanahan will shoot for the top 10 after a 22nd-place finish in 2012.
Buffalo sophomore Hayden Harrison, who was 23rd last year, will try to follow in the footsteps of former teammate Dylan Rich.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.