GREAT BEND, Kan. By Mike Courson
Lyles Lashley made Ellinwood a cross country powerhouse. Now it’s time to try in Great Bend. Two months ago, Lashley made the jump from Class 2A to 5A when he became the new Panther coach.
“They’re learning me and I’m learning them,” Lashley said. “We’re excited.”
Lashley coached in Ellinwood for seven years, leading the Lady Eagles to seven regional titles. The girls won Class 2A in 2015, finished second in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and placed third in 2014. The Eagle boys won three-straight Class 2A cross country titles from 2011-2013.
Great Bend is a team primed for success. Three Panther boys qualified for state last year. Junior Kerby Depenbusch won a regional title and ran a disappointing 21st at state. He finished seventh at state as a freshman but battled illness during last year’s cross country and track seasons. In May, he ran sixth in the 3200m run at state, and placed seventh in the 1,600. Feeling healthy in 2016, he is going for the ultimate goal.
“I’m fixed since track season,” he said. “I’m going to try to win state this year. That’s the goal.”
Depenbusch is joined by seniors Armando Jaquez and Eric Vasquez. Jaquez ran 59th at state last year, and Vasquez followed in 63rd. Last spring, Vasquez placed ninth in the 800m run at state.
“We’re really excited about them and we have a really good freshman class that is going to help out a bunch,” Lashley said. “As the next few years come, they definitely could turn into the type of runners we want to have.”
Some of those freshmen vying for varsity spots include Ryan Nicholson, Connor Griffith, Josh Tomlin, and Ray Kuhlman. Jesus Sanchez is a dual-sport athlete who will also play soccer.
After his run of state titles in Ellinwood, Lashley struggled to field complete teams on the boys’ side. He is pleased with the numbers he has in Great Bend.
“We’d like to have a few more out on the girls’ side, but the boys’ side is about perfect on numbers, especially with that freshman class,” he said. “That’s six or eight kids who will hopefully develop over the next few years.”
The Lady Panther team snuck into state last year by just three points. The result was a 12th-place finish out of 12 teams at Rim Rock. This year’s team will be led by senior and two-time state qualifier Karen Razo, who finished 52nd last year.
“She’s had a tremendous summer,” Lashley said. “I’m looking forward to watching her this year.”
Razo broke into the top-35 her freshman season. She expects to put forward her best effort in her final season. “I’m going to give it all this year,” she said. “I see a lot of good things happening.”
Junior Paloma Sandoval ran 78th at state last year, and sophomore Ema Millard placed 99th. Lashley expects big things out of freshman McKenna Esfeld, and he will have some help from junior Annie Mills, a state-champion high jumper and state runner up in the 400 out of Oklahoma. Junior Lacora Bryant, a state finalist in the 100m and 200m dashes, adds a little more depth to the squad.
Motivation is running extra high this fall as runners are able to watch the Olympics heading into the season. “It’s pretty cool to watch,” said Depenbusch. “I think it inspires it a lot of other people, especially the new kids who have just started running.”
The Panthers open their season at home on Oct. 1. Lashley’s Ellinwood teams had plenty of success on that course. After that, Lashley is ready to race against some new opponents, and to see his former runners at the Rim Rock meet on Sept. 24.
“I’m real excited to see new courses and new schools,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m ready to see St. Thomas Aquinas. Any time a school goes 1-2-3-4 it’s a little intimidating, but I’m looking forward to new challenges.”