Strong senior class has helped boost Harlan County’s chances going into regional meet


This year’s Harlan County High School cross country seniors include, from left, front row: Leah Taulbee, Riley Key and Summer Farley; back row: Lucas Epperson, Breydy Daniels, Matt Yeary and Daniel Joseph.

The Harlan County cross country team is accustomed to success. In the 14 seasons since the school’s inception, the program has captured five regional championships, six conference championships and 17 district championships between the boys and girls programs. Additionally, the HCHS cross country program has qualified a student-athlete or team into the KHSAA state cross country championships each season since the school opened. One of the key premises of the program’s culture is the emphasis on accountability, inclusion and the family atmosphere that team members have created since 2008.
As the 2021 season approached, coach Ryan Vitatoe assessed his roster and immediately found its strengths: balance and senior leadership.
“We have added some excellent young talent on both sides, but there’s no question about the importance these seniors have played in our success so far. Both programs have won the district championship, and our boys team has finished in the top three at every competition, with the girls team winning the conference, and the seniors have set the tone for us all the way,” Vitatoe said. “They continue to display the key values of our program they have observed from the seniors before them. The groups that follow them have certainly benefitted from them and will understand how to fill that role and reflect those values when their time comes.”
The boys team, which has four seniors, is ranked 10th in the AA state rankings.
“It’s interesting, all of these senior boys have literally grown up in the program, and I think that leads to the investment they have in its success. This means more to them than just trophies. They view this as their legacy,” Vitatoe said. “This is an exceptional group of guys that I feel very thankful to have had the opportunity to coach.”
Senior Daniel Joseph, who has been a member of the program since sixth grade, follows former HCHS runners such as David Lee, Steven Engle and Caleb Rigney who had breakout senior seasons.
“Daniel has been lights out this season. I knew when he came out as an elementary runner that he would be an incredible runner and he’s having a stellar senior season,” Vitatoe said. “He’s really stepped up to own that number one spot and has only gotten better as the season goes on. I think he has only scratched the surface of his potential.”
Joseph, who could be described as reserved, explains his success this season as a result of the change in his mindset.
“In the beginning, I was really shy and unsure of myself, but through all the years of hard work, I feel more focused and experienced and sure of my role. I believe you can learn from every race; you should have good sportsmanship from each race whether you win or lose, and you have to support your team,” he said.
This mindset has led to a very successful year with him consistently running in in the 17-minute range nearly every race this season. Joseph credits this to his newfound perspective.
“I always tell myself it’s ‘time to go’ and ‘just don’t stop’ in each race,” Joseph said. “This is important to me as I want to do my part to help my brothers reach their goals at region. I’d also like to set a good example for my younger teammates. If you can find that determination and confidence, you can be successful.”
Senior Matthew Yeary has stepped into a captain’s role and has been an integral part of the team’s overall success. Yeary, one of the top 110 and 300 hurdlers in the state (and a state medalist) in spring track, has been a member of the cross country program at HCHS since sixth grade. In addition to his successes on the track, Yeary has been one of the top seven varsity participants since eighth grade helping the Bears qualify for three straight state championship berths.
“Matt brings it every single day. He has stepped into the number two role, and I know what to expect from him each meet,” Vitatoe said. “He’s so consistent, and he works hard every day. More importantly, he knows how to motivate and hold his teammates accountable. He truly knows how to lead by example. I’ve never seen him take a shortcut in all the years that I’ve coached him. He’s been a big part of our success this season, and he’s going to be very successful at the next level should he choose to pursue that.”
“Being part of this team means you are part of a family. I have a close bond with everyone inside and outside of practice,” Yeary said. “As a captain, I have to be a good role model and leader to the younger kids while helping keep them focused and on task,” he added. “My goal for our team is to work for each other and be the best we can be.”
Lucas Epperson, who has been a member of the cross country team at HCHS since third grade, has provided valuable leadership as one of the captains this season while having a breakout season of his own.
“Lucas has been amazing for us this year. His leadership and experience are so valuable to our team. I challenged him to take command of our middle pack, and he’s done a great job of keeping them together and moving at the right time in each race. We’d be lost without his leadership and experience,” Vitatoe said. “One of the things I appreciate most about Lucas is his work ethic. I’d put him up against anyone over the years regarding how hard he works.”
Epperson recognizes the importance and responsibility of being a leader and embraces that role.
“Being a leader on this team means so much to me after being part of this team for so long,” Epperson said. “I’ve looked up to the previous leaders, and now it is such an honor to be one of those leaders who bring the team together.”
Epperson hopes his leadership can lead the program into uncharted territory in terms of state finish. Epperson played a significant part in the Bears finishing 14th in last year’s KHSAA state meet, the best mark in program history, but he has his sights set on a higher goal.
“Being a senior, I’ve had to think long and hard about what our goals as a team should be,” Epperson said. “After a certain speech, coach told us the highest rank in the state that came from our county was ninth from Evarts High School in 1994. I knew then our goal should be to finish eighth or better in the state meet, and I’m determined to make that goal a reality.”
Breydy Daniels, who has been a member of the program since the seventh grade, is a crucial reserve to the boys’ varsity team.
“Breydy is such a great teammate, and he always gives his best effort. He is one of the most mature boys I’ve ever coached, and I’ll always remember hearing him hold a group of seniors accountable when he was a seventh-grader. He’s just that type of kid,” Vitatoe said.
“As a senior and having been on the team for five years, cross country has shaped me into who I am today and the person I will become,” Daniels said. “Some of my best memories have come from my experiences with this team that I think of as my second family. The program has pushed the boundaries of what I thought I was capable of.”
Daniels recognizes the importance of his role on the team.
“I, along with everyone else, play an important part of making the team whole. We all support and rely on each other,” he said. “Being a senior, I try to be a positive role model for the younger members. Hopefully, the future teams will look to our achievements and strive to surpass them.”
The Lady Bears qualified for the KHSAA state championships as a team last season after a two-year hiatus, the longest in school history. Vitatoe credits this year’s senior leadership with ending that drought.
“This is a special group of girls who work well together, and everything they do is for the team,” he said. “There is no selfishness with this group and its team above everything for these ladies. These seniors have seen the tough years. They’re battle-tested, and they are ready for the challenge ahead.”
Last year’s team placed fifth in the AA Region 5 meet, and the HCHS seniors hope to climb in the region rankings while returning to state as a team this season.
Riley Key, a three-sport standout at Harlan County and a team captain, has lofty goals for the girls as region approaches.
“My goal for the season for our team is to make it as far as I know that we can. We have strong runners who can push through the obstacles thrown at us and come out champions. I don’t want my team having regrets that they didn’t push hard enough.” Key said.
She further cites the closeness of the program as critical to its success.
“For me, being part of this program means that I know I have a ‘plus’ family — my cross family,” Key said, “We are all very close, and we all stick together and encourage each other, both girls and guys. We always have each other’s backs and uplift each other and make each other laugh on a bad day. That’s what this program means to me.”
“Riley is the ultimate team player. Everything she does is for the good of the team and her teammates,” Vitatoe said. “Honestly, she could care less about where she finishes on the team as long as we are successful, and that’s why the girls look to her for guidance.”
Summer Farley has been a strong competitor for the girls team, being a varsity member for each of the four years she’s competed, making her experience valuable as a tri-captain.
“Summer has been through a lot of battles as a varsity competitor, competing in both 2A and 3A regions,” Vitatoe said. “She knows what it takes to be successful, and she displays that in all her interactions with her teammates. For her, it’s team success above individual success, and that’s what makes her so important to our team.”
For Farley, being part of the cross country and track programs has been a valuable part of her life and one that she wants to leave her mark on.
“It’s meant everything to me to be part of this team,” Farley said. “This is not really a team, but a family that I have grown with and loved. My role on the team is to be a leader in any way possible and try to help the other kids grow and teach them from our mistakes to do better when we are gone. My goal for the season is to continue to be better, for the girls to compete for each other and run together. That isn’t always about the fastest time, but that we work together as one.”
The third of the girls team tri-captains, Leah Taulbee, is also a three-sport athlete at Harlan County. She has been a member of the varsity squad in her three years on the cross country team.
“Leah is such a great kid who always has a wonderful attitude in everything she does,” Vitatoe said. “Her energy is contagious, and you know you’re getting her best effort.”
Taulbee, like her counterparts, enjoys the close atmosphere of the program.
“To me, to be part of the cross country program is that I have a family. We go through good and bad days, and I wouldn’t want a different team than the group I have,” Taulbee said. “The program has taught me dedication, perseverance, and it has taught me not to give up when things get tough, My role on the team is to be a leader and example to the younger teammates. Our goal is to do the best of our ability, whether that means winning the region or being a top 10 team at the state meet. We have worked so hard to do big things, and we will.”
Both teams will compete in the Class AA, Region 5 meet in Monticello on Saturday. The girls will run at 3 p.m., with the boys following at 4.