HCHS, Harlan heading to Wayne for regional track meets


John Henson

Harlan County coach Ryan Vitatoe talked to his team during a race earlier this season. Both HCHS and Harlan will compete in regional meets Saturday at Wayne County High School.

By Abby Sherman, Contributing Writer

After several years of trial by fire in one of the toughest Class 3A regions in the state, the Harlan County Black Bears have displayed the resulting growth with a successful run in their new home, Class 2A Region 5. The boys squad will be gunning for a fifth consecutive team appearance in the state meet when the Black Bears take the line at Saturday’s regional championship meet.
Harlan County finished as regional runner-up last year and placed 14th at the state meet, the best state finish in the program’s history. The Bears lost four seniors from last year’s team, but have employed a “next man up” mentality to remain successful.
“This is a tough region, and there are no easy passes into the state meet. Three of the top seven schools in boys 2A state are in our region. The overall top-ranked runner in 2A is in our region as well. So making the state meet from this field is pretty significant,” Harlan County coach Ryan Vitatoe said.
“These guys have been very consistent throughout the season, and the gap between us and some of the schools hasn’t been as wide as it appeared. If we show up to race on Saturday and follow our strategy, I like the odds we have of returning to state.”
The Black Bears are anchored by a couple of senior mainstays in Andrew Yeary and Austin Crain, both of whom have been with the team since their elementary school days.
“The boys have had an incredible season, and it all begins with the leadership that Andrew Yeary and Austin Crain have provided our team,” Vitatoe said. “They have both grown into fantastic leaders, and they do a great job of setting the expectations for our younger guys.”
Yeary, whose brother, Matt, is now running at the University of the Cumberlands after a solid high school career, stepped into the role of the team’s top finisher this season.
“Andrew has continued our recent trend of senior boys who have had breakout seasons. He’s had a great season so far and has flourished in the number one position for our team,” Vitatoe said.
“Austin Crain’s impact on our team is immeasurable. I’ve already mentioned his leadership, but he always sets the perfect example for the rest of our guys,” Vitatoe said. “His consistency, both on and off the course, is vital for us.”
Tanner Daniels has become an integral of the varsity squad this season while also capping an impressive middle school season.
“Tanner has stepped in throughout the season in the varsity races and has done a great job. He’s steadily been our number two guy and has ran 5k times unseen in our county by a middle schooler,” Vitatoe said. “I think both he and Andrew have a good shot of placing in the top 10.”
Kaden Boggs, a junior, and freshman Jacob Schwenke are varsity newcomers this season, who have helped the Bears maintain consistency.
“Kaden Boggs has been a breakout performer for us this season. He’s one of those guys we’ve had since middle school who has continuously improved throughout his career,” Vitatoe said. “I’m really proud of his progress and he’s stepped in to fill a big hole for us this season.
“Jacob Schwenke has shown a tremendous amount of growth this season. Last year was about trying to teach him how to race, and he’s stepped up this season to really make a significant impact on our team.”
First-year runners Caleb Schwenke and Elijah Moore round out the Bears varsity roster.
“Caleb Schwenke and Elijah Moore have been huge additions to our program this season,” Vitatoe said. “Elijah has been so consistent throughout the year. He and Caleb have worked so well together and have really made a big difference for us.”
While consistency has been an asset for the boys team, the injury bug has made it hard to find on the girls side. Assuming everyone is healthy Saturday, it will mark only the second time since Sept. 1 that the team has raced with its full roster. Still, with one of the region’s top runners, the Lady Bears are ranked third in the region.
“We are one of the youngest teams in the region, with only one junior in our regional lineup. The rest are eighth- through 10th graders,” Vitatoe said. “But the girls have a real opportunity to leave the regional meet on Saturday with a trophy for the second consecutive year. We have had one of the toughest seasons I’ve experienced in my 20 years in terms of injuries; it’s been a weird season for sure.”
The Lady Bears’ fortunes are tied to the success of star sophomore Peyton Lunsford.
“Peyton has a real chance at a top-two finish. She’s been running very well the last few weeks, and I expect she will have a strong race,” Vitatoe said. “The key for her is staying positive and focused on our race strategy; all the talent is obviously there to do something special.”
Preslee Hensley has become a consistent presence for the Lady Bears in her first season.
“I can’t say enough about the emergence of Preslee Hensley. She’s been our number two girl all season long and has exploded onto the scene for us,” Vitatoe said. “She has a real opportunity at a top-10 finish in the region.”
The pack running of Sophie Day, Kendall Brock and Aliyah Deleon could be a big factor in Harlan County’s chances Saturday.
“Our pack of Sophie Day and Kendall Brock have been fantastic for us all season. Aliyah Deleon has been with them most races, and it’s been a strong reason for our success,” Vitatoe said.
Rounding out the varsity roster are Kylie Jones and Addi Gray.
“Two other newcomers have really emerged this season that have really impacted our team culture. Kylie Jones and Addi Gray, like Preslee, have made great contributions to our team this season,” Vitatoe said.
Vitatoe has seen alternates step up big in previous regional meets during his tenure at Harlan County. While he hopes the injury woes are behind his team, he said the alternates, including senior Lainey Garrett, must be ready if needed.
“Our alternates will also have to be ready to roll. It’s important that everyone in our program is ready to compete. The girls understand this is a very tough region, but they should also recognize that they are as good as anyone there,” he said. “Achieving a goal is a decision you make, and we have to show up on Saturday committed to competing.
“I want to thank Lainey Garrett for all her hard work throughout her career. She’s been such an important part of our program and her leadership as a senior has been invaluable.”
Mental toughness will be the key for the Lady Bears, the coach said.
“For us, we have to be focused on the strategy we’ve put together, while understanding that achieving something special will be painful,” Vitatoe said. “We have the tendency to let up when the pain comes, and that will be the difference between bringing home a trophy or not.”
The girls race is set for noon, with the boys following at 1 p.m. The races will be held at Cave Lake.

After watching the program’s numbers grow over the past couple of seasons, Harlan coach Anne Lindsey is ready to see her squad take the next step towards regional success at Saturday’s Class A Region 6 championship at Wayne County.
“Our boys and girls varsity have been working hard all season to prepare for the region race on Saturday. We have seen a lot of individual and team improvement this season. We know that coming into region all teams will be looking to perform their best, and that’s exactly what we have to do,” she said.
Harlan’s boys squad is led by freshmen Dylan Cox and Brayden Howard. Evan Bargo, Connor Collins, Sayed Damaa and Seth Coogle complete the varsity team.
After a strong middle school season, seventh grader Harper Carmical has emerged as the girls team’s top runner. She is joined by Chloe Schwenke, Abbigaile Jones, Mia Pace, Juliana Damaa and Halle Cox.
“We’ve focused our practices the last few weeks on staying healthy, good nutrition and personal performance. Our plan is to control those variables within our realm of control,” Lindsey said. “We can’t control the performance of others, but we can focus on our own physical, emotional and mental preparedness so that come Saturday we are ready to set some records.
“It’s been a great season and we’re excited that the culminating event is here.”
The girls will race at 9 a.m. at Cave Lake, followed by the boys at 10.