Phoenix Staff Reports
EDMOND — Regardless of what the record books say, Tahlequah coach Elzy Miller will always see Jessica Hembree as a four-time state champion.
Hembree — a state champion as a freshman and a sophomore before suffering an injury 50 yards from the finish line as a junior (while cruising to another crown) — rolled to another state championship on Saturday as the Tahlequah senior runner breezed past the Class 5A field in Edmond.
Hembree finished the two-mile race in 11:48, beating Metro Christian’s Kelsey McKee by 14 seconds.
“She went out and took the race from the beginning,” Miller said of Hembree. “Jess just took over and it was her by herself.”
For Hembree, though, there were some flashbacks to last year’s mishap as she neared the spot where her dreams of a career sweep would end.
“I was kind of scared, honestly,” she said. “It’s all healed and all but I thought about it and I just put it in the back of my mind and focused on finishing.”
Hembree’s state crown capped off a season where she won the Metro Lakes Conference meet and a Class 5A regional meet last weekend.
“She’s undefeated in state competition, as far as I’m concerned,” Miller said. “In my eyes, she’s a four-time state champion.”
Does she see herself as a four-time champion?
“Kind of,” she said. “But you know, things always happen and you can’t expect anything. It just happens for one reason or another.”
Tahlequah was second teamwise. The Lady Tigers finished with 79 points, 20 behind Metro Christian.
“Our goal was to get on the (medal) stand, and we did that,” Miller said.
Gracie Medellin (12:21) was Tahlequah’s second finisher in ninth place. Amy Hembree (12:28) was 12th, Lindsey Chaffin (12:50) finished 20th and Breanna Duncan (13:15) came in 41st for Tahlequah.
This was the highest team finish by Tahlequah since Tahlequah won the Class 4A state meet in 1991. Rounding out the top five teams was Shawnee (104), Coweta (111) and Deer Creek (146).
On the boys’ side, Tahlequah’s Zech VanFleet nearly made it a clean sweep for Tahlequah on the individual medal stand. The Tiger sophomore came in second in the boys Class 5A state meet, finishing the 5K race at 16:26, nine seconds behind Deer Creek’s Bryce Balenseifen.
“That’s a huge accomplishment for him,” Tahlequah coach Jason Proctor said. “Really good for a sophomore year.”
As a team, Tahlequah finished third with 144 points. Deer Creek was first with 36 points and Coweta claimed the silver at 115. Mo Bassime came in 17th for Tahlequah at 17:12, while Ara Poteete (17:51) was 45th. Ty Tramell (17:59) was 54th and Aaron Eversole (18:16) came in 63rd.
In Class 6A, Muskogee’s Filo Espinosa, the first Rougher to make it to state in cross country since 1991, finished 47th among 111 boys runners in 6A, finishing in 17:03.01. Noah Gade of Stillwater was 6A champion in 15:30.84, six seconds ahead of Cody Jones of Jenks (15:36.05). Jenks won the team title with 51 points, followed by Bishop Kelley in second with 67 and Edmond Memorial a distant third with 121.
It was 20 seconds better than his previous best in his first year of running.
“I came out this year thinking it would be good conditioning for soccer and it’s really helped a lot,” he said. “It means a lot, it really means a lot to me to be the first to get here in a while.”
In the 4A division, Fort Gibson’s Lillan Bear finished 49th out of 110 girls in 13:41:58. Stilwell’s Sydney Lawrence was champion at 11:51.39, ahead of Lincoln Christian’s Laura Kunz (12:18.25). Mount St. Mary’s won the team title with 45 points with Heritage Hall in second and Vinita in third.
Anadarko was boys champion in a close battle with 96 points. One point behind was Mount St. Mary’s and Lincoln Christian had 99 points for third. Baylor Harvey of Cleveland was the top finisher on the boys side in 16:21.76.