Defending state champions win at SWCCCA meet

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By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)

BOLIVAR — Two reigning state champions took their first steps towards another title on Saturday, defeating hundreds of fellow runners in the area’s largest cross country event.

Juniors Daelen Ackley of El Dorado Springs and Riley Arnold of Blue Eye posted the top times in the annual Southwest Cross Country Coaches Association meet at the Bolivar Golf Course.

Ackley finished the boys race in 15 minutes, 45.84 seconds, surviving a late surge from West Plains senior Riley Simpson to win his second straight SWCCA title. Arnold posted a personal-best time of 18 minutes, 21.54 seconds in the girls race for her first SWCCCA victory.

The highly anticipated race traditionally serves as an early-season litmus test, as upwards of 40 area schools and some 400 varsity runners get an opportunity to see how they stack up against the majority of region’s teams and athletes — not just the ones in their class.

PHOTOS: BOYS RACE – CLICK HERE

But this year’s installment carried some added significance for the runners, as many of them also compete in track and field and lost their spring season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That meant Saturday was the first chance they had to race for their school in about 10 months.

“It feels great because we had like a year off,” Ackley said. “I really wanted to show that I could win state in track too, but we didn’t get that opportunity. “I just trained harder, ran faster paces and ran more mileage. It paid off and I hope that we can continue to have the season.”

There is no way of predicting how the ongoing pandemic may impact the fall sports seasons — whether all races will run as scheduled or if there will be additional interruptions. But with Saturday’s race proceeding as planned — albeit with no fans in attendance, other than fellow runners and coaches — athletes made the most of the opportunity to get back on the course.

Ackley and Arnold led from wire-to-wire, with Arnold getting stronger as the race progressed.

The two-time defending Class 1 state champion shaved 12 seconds off her personal-record time of 18 minutes, 33 seconds and was never seriously threatened past the midway point. After narrowly finishing second to Kickapoo’s Klarie Brown at last year’s SWCCA meet, Arnold flipped the script and pulled away at the end. Brown finished in second place, 53 seconds off the pace.

Arnold said it was her goal to “stay with” Brown this year “and hope to get first.” With that out of the way, she now has her sights set on a third consecutive state championship for the Bulldogs.

“For sure,” Arnold said. “I want to get back there and do it again.”

PHOTOS: GIRLS RACE – CLICK HERE

Ackley’s winning time was about six seconds off his personal record, which won him the Class 2 state title on November 9. But it was 15 seconds faster than his SWCCCA-winning time last fall.

“I was doubting myself a little bit and didn’t know that I could run as fast as I did, but then I ran 15 seconds faster than last year,” Ackley said. “So that was good and just shows that I keep improving and that my training is paying off.”

Ackley said he questioned whether he had peaked when he won his state championship, but he had faith in his training and stopped doubting himself last night. By the time his 5:30 a.m. alarm went off for his 6:30 a.m bus to Bolivar, he was ready to defend his SWCCA championship.

“Last year I was kind of like the underdog,” Ackley said. “I always like racing the bigger school kids … because we race a bunch of small local meets (during the season) and I win pretty easily.”

Nothing about this finish was easy.

Ackley held back in the first mile, but picked up the pace and raced to a sizable lead by the midway point. But Simpson surged late and pulled close as the pair approached the homestretch. Ackley rebounded and finished three seconds ahead of the West Plains senior.

“I kept looking back to see because I knew I dropped him a little bit but then, like you said, he started catching me,” Ackley said. “I was like, ‘I’m not getting beat.’ I didn’t want to do all that work to get passed at the finish, so I just started going.”

Ackley has his sights set on another state title, but also hopes to set a new personal record this season.

“I want to go sub-15,” he said. “We have a few fast courses this year, so I’ll try that.”


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