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Neosho County Panthers cross country runners Alex Lopez (left), Billy Kiprono (center) and Andrew Leck (right) pose after the NJCAA Half Marathon National Championship meet on Tuesday, Nov. 16.

JARED McMASTERS

RICHMOND, Va. — When the cross country season kicked off in September, Neosho County head coach Trey Bruton felt like returning Panthers runner Billy Kiprono began the season out of shape.

Those feelings were confirmed when Kiprono didn’t earn a top-five finish at Neosho County’s first meet in Hutchinson.

Less than three months later, Kiprono led the way for the Panthers at last week’s NJCAA Cross Country Championships and NJCAA Half Marathon Championships in Richmond, Virginia.

“I was super proud of the guys,” Bruton said. “We faced a lot of obstacles this season, whether it was sickness or injuries or whatever, but they gave it their all. We ran about how we did at Regionals. It wasn’t like we got worse, but it wasn’t the big jump you hope to see at the national level. You hope to have them prepared and see a 30-second PR, but we didn’t quite see that.”

Kiprono took 115th place out of the 197 runners who finished the cross country championships 8k on Saturday, Nov. 13, and 46th place in the half marathon three days later to earn a spot in the top half of the individual standings.

Kiprono ran the 8k in 28:08 and the half marathon in 1:16:23.5 to end his season.

“We’ll be even more excited to see his transition over to track because he’s more of a middle-distance guy,” Bruton said. “I think he’s ready, looks good and his half marathon was about the same pace as the 8k. He’s getting there, and that’s exciting for us.”

Following Kiprono for the Panthers was Andrew Leck, who Bruton said was still getting over a cold when he competed.

Leck recorded times of 28:21 and 1:20:01.8 in the two events to finish 10 spots behind Kiprono in the cross country championships and 20 spots behind him in the half marathon.

Bruton said that Leck ran the first 10 miles of the half marathon very well before he started to slow down over the final three or four miles.

“I’m assuming maybe I didn’t push him enough throughout the year to keep him where he needed to be,” Bruton said. “Our first 8k was his PR for the season.”

Rounding out the Panthers’ trio of runners was Alex Lopez, another Neosho County teammate battling a non-COVID-19 illness.

Bruton said that Lopez was managing plenty of nerves heading into the events, but the head coach thought these meets would be a perfect learning experience.

Lopez earned 167th place in the 8k and 86th place in the half marathon.

Bruton said Neosho County elected not to send any members of its women’s team to compete because the runners did not meet the program’s institutional standards. Those standards are based on several factors, including placement at Regionals, team time averages and being ranked in the top 25 polls.

“We just didn’t hit enough of the criteria to justify taking the whole team and paying for it out of the championship budget,” Bruton said.

The Panthers indoor track season will begin in early 2022.

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