SULLIVAN TWP. — Gus Kazek hoped to join an elite class of Black River runners who have won the J.B. Firestone Invitational.
Highland’s Cole Vandenberg had other plans.
Vandenberg pulled away midway through the race after the two seniors bumped elbows in a wooded section of the course. The Hornets runner clocked 16 minutes, 37.41 seconds — the fastest winning time on the course in more than four years.
Kazek took second in 16:59.97, his fastest time on the course by more than 12 seconds.
“A lot of pushing went on in the woods, so I had to burn it for a little bit,” Vandenberg said. “I thought he was going to come back, so I tried working it as hard as I could. There were a lot of people cheering for him. He’s a very good runner.”
Kazek thought he got the worst of the jostling, however.
“In the first mile and a half we were in the woods and he elbowed me with his right elbow right in the chest. I couldn’t breathe the rest of the race,” said Kazek, who is about 3-4 inches shorter than Vandenberg.
“That’s where he pulled away from me.”
Last year, Highland’s Stuart Arbuckle (17:04) defeated Kazek (17:12) for the title. Vandenberg was seventh in 17:58. A senior, Arbuckle finished fifth (17:16.71) this time around.
“I’m definitely upset about not getting the win,” said Kazek, a 2010 state qualifier. “It’s my last year. It’s my home course. All the good runners that have run here (for Black River) have won this: Dave Kindall, Robert Altenburger, Alex Ross and Justin Ross. They all won it their senior year. I’m kind of upset that I didn’t follow the tradition. Kindall was counting on me to win it.
“Today was my third straight race under 17 flat, which is nice. I need to focus on the rest of the season. I just need to keep trying to race from up front and work on getting my position better.”
Jason Hadchiti (10th, 18:09.27), Ryan Wilber (27th, 19:02.53) and Ian Alred (34th, 19:27.13) rounded out Highland’s top five.
“I tried catching him (Vandenberg), but I couldn’t breathe after he elbowed me,” said Kazek. “I stumbled a little bit over to the side after he hit me. He didn’t say anything. He just kept on going and pulled away. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. My freshman year I was pushed over at New London going around a turn, but I got right back up.”
Kazek, Firelands senior Brady Jeffers and Arbuckle went through the mile mark together in 5:06, but then Vandenberg pulled up as Jeffers and Arbuckle faded.
Kazek and Jeffers talked about going 1-2, but those plans fell apart.
The Highland boys were the class of the field, as they won for the third straight year by defeating Akron Firestone 77-99 in a 12-team field.
“I trained a lot harder over the summer and a lot smarter,” said Vandenberg, who notched his first career win. “I changed my diet last winter. My track times in the spring were way better. For example, my time for the 3,200 (9:49) was about 40 seconds faster than sophomore year.”
The Highland girls also won for the third year in a row, edging Westlake 30-32 in a nine-team field despite the Demons placing their top five among the first 12 finishers. Senior Nicole Hadler (20:06.98) and freshman Carlee Rhodes (20:16.42) finished 1-2 overall for Highland, which placed their top five in the top 16 overall.
“I feel stronger than last year,” Hadler said. “Carlee definitely pushed me to run a better time. With a lot of the turns I kept looking back. I try not to but I always end up doing that. She’s getting closer every week.
“The weather turned out not to be so bad. It was just a little windy. Everyone on the team pushed themselves to get the places that we needed.”
Hadler missed Firestone the last two years because of conflicts with varsity tennis. Saturday’s win also her first career invite victory. Her previous bests were second-place finishes at Berkshire invite and Suburban League Duals.
“There’s always going to be something,” Hadler said. “I wish I could run every meet.”
Maggie Christopher (sixth, 21:27.85), Kaite Piar (10th, 21:47.47) and Samantha Zidd (16th, 22:27.58) rounded out the top five.
“I got my PR by 37 seconds,” Rhodes said. “It was quite an adjustment at the beginning of the season (getting use to 5K versus two miles), but I’m getting use to it. It feels awesome to win the team championship. It’s the first meet we’ve won this year.”
Contact Paul Heyse at (440) 329-7135 or email@example.com.