- Greg Billing Contributing Writer
Dustin Horter passed the torch to Conant Smith on Saturday afternoon. But not until after Horter had won his second straight Division I state cross country championship.
After all, Horter still needed the torch for his birthday candles. The Lakota East High School senior celebrated his 18th birthday with a dramatic sprint to the finish, edging Middletown’s Smith by 0.8 seconds at National Trail Raceway.
Horter was the runaway favorite. But as he came into view of the grandstands, spectators were surprised to see Smith running side by side with him. Smith admitted he was a bit taken aback by that development too.
“Was not expecting that,” Smith said. “I wanted to come in here and race with the leaders, but we thought Dustin was going to just take it.”
Horter and Smith picked up the pace about 100 meters from the finish and unleashed an all-out sprint soon after. Horter, who won last year’s meet by a comfortable six seconds, had just enough left to win in 15 minutes, 3.4 seconds.
“When you’re coming down that last 100 meters, you’re thinking, ‘Am I going to regret it if I don’t give it my all?’ ” Horter said. “That went through my head. When I went through the finish line, it was relief. I think I can say I put everything on the line in my last high school race in Ohio. It’s something I’m proud of.”
A week ago at the regional championship meet, Smith finished second to Horter by 23 seconds. Going into Saturday’s state championship, Smith, Pickerington Central senior Matt Scrape and Thomas Worthington senior Arjun Jha planned to stay in a group and push themselves to keep up with Horter. But one by one they fell off. Except for Smith.
“I knew I had a shot, but who knew it was going to be that close,” said Smith, who finished third at state in 2016. “I shocked myself. Today I stuck with him. I gave it my all.”
Horter tagged Smith as the favorite to win next season’s state championship. Smith was the lone non-senior to finish among the top six and one of two juniors to finish inside the senior-led Top 10.
“Next year, I’m really excited to see what Conant can do at state,” Horter said. “He’s going to be shooting for that course record. It’s my time right now, but I’m passing the torch to him.”
The state championship capped an up-and-down season for Horter. He suffered his lone loss to Zach Kreft of Buckeye Valley at the Midwest Meet of Champions in September. Kreft won the D-II state title Saturday in 15:20.6. The loss sent Horter’s national ranking spiraling. As for the peaks, perhaps the highest came when Horter gave a verbal commitment to compete for Indiana University a day before the regional meet.
“I faced a lot of adversity,” said Horter, his emotions starting to show. “I come here and the final stretch of the race I come out on top. I pray before every race and, win or lose, I’m using this platform to show my identity outside of running. I hope when people look at me and see me on top of the podium they see a good Christian guy along with a good runner. I truly believe God has a path for me.”
Saturday, it led to a second straight state championship.
In the girls D-II race, Monroe senior Rachel Ploeger was facing her own battle with adversity. A hip injury earlier in the season and a knee injury at the district meet limited Ploeger to elliptical workouts only the past two weeks.
She responded Saturday with a gutsy third-place finish in 18:25.3. That was 12 seconds behind winner Annie Zimmer of Chagrin Falls.
“I did what I could and I’m pretty happy with my performance,” Ploeger said. “It was probably the best finish I’ve had in six years of running.”
Ploeger said if she had been 100 percent Saturday, she likely would have still finished third. The three-time state qualifier finished seventh in 2016. Ploeger and former teammate Alayna Garver were the Hornets’ first state qualifiers in 2015. On Saturday, sophomore Emily McMurry also ran and finished 109th. On the boys side, freshman Marty Zumbiel finished 51st.
“(I’ll remember) the way my team has grown,” Ploeger said. “We’ve had so much talent develop. I’d be very happy knowing my success had a part in helping my team grow.”
Also on Saturday, the Lebanon boys made their first appearance at state in the 5K era. The Warriors qualified in 1964 when it was a two-mile race. Senior Jackson Siddall finished 49th to lead the Warriors to 16th in D-I.
In D-I girls, freshman Faith Duncan finished fifth — nine seconds behind race winner Morgan Gigandet of Troy — to help the Greater Western Ohio Conference claim three of the top five spots. Freshman Carly Spletzer finished 50th overall to help the Lakota East girls team finish 10th.