Riley Take Two: Hough, Stewart Claim Eastbay Midwest Titles

* Cherry Creek's Riley Stewart nearly broke a course record on Saturday at the Eastbay Midwest Region Championships

Photo Credit: MileSplit Illinois

By Brett Haffner - MileSplit Correspondent

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KENOSHA, WISCONSIN -- The Wayne E. Dannehl National Cross Country Course is well-known for its notorious starting ascent, large rolling hills and, on occasion, being completely trashed by mud.

However, ideal conditions met athletes on Saturday at the Eastbay Midwest Regional Championship, providing the top runners in the Midwest with a dry and matted down course to run some blazing fast times. 

And they sure made the most of that opportunity, as meet champions Riley Stewart of Cherry Creek High School (CO) and MileSplit50 No. 1 ranked Riley Hough of Hartland (MI) both ran some of the fastest times in course history, thereby locking up automatic bids to the Eastbay National Cross Country Championships on Dec. 11 in San Diego, California. 

Stewart will return to Balboa Park after qualifying for Foot Locker Nationals in 2019, while Hough will debut for the first time -- and he will do so on a 15-race win streak.

Stewart's time of 16:54.40 was just 0.40 seconds shy of Anna Rohrer's all-time best of 16:54.00 at the course.

It was a good day to be named Riley. 

The girls race saw some back and forth action after a 5:30 opening mile, which then saw Arianne Olson of Holland West Ottawa (MI) start to open up a small gap on the pack, including the likes of Ava Parekh of Chicago Latin (IL) and Sophia Kennedy of Park Tudor (IN). Riley Stewart lurked behind the front.

"I wanted to stay calm and conservative and use the downhills to my advantage," Stewart said afterward. "I took the lead after two miles and didn't look back." 

Her move was decisive, as Stewart's final time of 16:54.4 opened up a 17-second gap over second-place Ali Weimer of St. Michael Albertville (MN), who ran 17:11.2 and lost for the first time this season. 

Kennedy ended up in third in 17:18.4, following the likes of her father, Olympian Bob Kennedy, who won Foot Locker Nationals in 1987. Like her father, she earned an automatic place at the race formerly known as Foot Locker. 

Olson finished right behind Kennedy, taking fourth with a time of 17:19.5, while Parekh was fifth in 17:21.6. 

"I'm very glad the race was put on this year after being canceled last year," Parekh said. "The dry course also helped a lot." 

Two Michigan-based runners came next, with senior Julia Flynn of Traverse City Central (MI) finishing sixth in 17:25.5 and sophomore Rachel Forsyth of Ann Arbor Pioneer (MI) taking seventh in 17:31.3 -- Rachel's sister, Anne, was fifth at Foot Locker Nationals in 2016.

Lowell's (IN) Karina James finished eighth in 17:34.6 and Park Tudor's (IN) Gretchen Farley was ninth in 17:36.8, as she joined her fellow teammate in Kennedy to qualify.

Middleton's (WI) Lauren Pansegrau was 10th in 17:39.4, rounding out the qualifiers to the Eastbay National Meet.

In the boys race, a blistering 62-second first 400 meters set the tone for the fast pace, with contenders such as Zane Bergen of Niwot (CO) and Micah Wilson of St. Charles East (IL) finding places at the front of the opening ascent. 

As the race continued to unfold, a strong pack of 13 runners approached the two-mile mark in a close formation, with New Trier's (IL) Nick Falk starting to open up a three-step lead over Bergen, Riley Hough, and Kole Mathison of Carmel (IN). 

Ultimately, it was Hough that proved his US No. 1 ranking was quite legit, as he opened up a gap and cruised into the finish in an outstanding time of 14:49.5. The time was third-best in course history, only behind Lukas Verzbicas (14:44.20) and Futsum Zienasellassie (14:47.60) in 2010.

"I wanted to stay conservative with the pack and really be ready for the last few hills," Hough said. "I went at two miles to try and gap the pack and it paid off well." 

Angola's (IN) Izaiah Steury came across a strong second behind Hough, running 14:53.8 for runner-up honors. Niwot's (CO) Bergen held on with the lead pack for third, finishing with a time of 14:55.4 in the process. 

"Going out really hard might have bit me hard the last 800 or so, which I was kind of disappointed about," Bergen said. "I still made it, though, which was good and I have RunningLane next week. I want to try and get Top three and help my team as much as possible." 

Falk's effort to push the pace at the halfway point paid off, securing him a fourth-place finish in 14:55.4. Hunter Jones of Benzie Central (MI) finished fifth in 14:58.2, while Gabe Hinrichs of Elkhorn South (NE) finished sixth in 15:00.0, repeating his personal best 5K of 15:00.0 that he ran at Team Heartland Regionals a few weeks ago.

"At points throughout the race I didn't feel the greatest in my legs," Hinrichs said. "I was really far back at the mile and was able to move up a ton throughout the second mile and eventually got into the top ten around 2.25 miles." 

The Michigan contingent of men was very strong in this race, with five of the top 10 finishers hailing from the Great Lakes State.

Luke Venhuizen of Traverse City (MI) was a part of that group, finishing seventh in 15:00.2. He joined Flynn as a qualifier from the same school. 

Mathison remained in qualifying position throughout, securing an eighth-place finish in 15:01.7

With an eight-second gap to the next group of finishers, two more Michigan-based athletes secured the final qualifying spots. Peter Baracco of Farmington (MI) finished ninth in 15:09.9 and Caleb Jarema of Pinckney (MI) finished 10th in 15:10.8.