GRAFTON — Marion County was projected to be a collective force entering the Big 10 Conference championship meet even with a full league of competing teams, so when COVID-19 protocols related to the state’s metrics map scratched nearly half of the conference from Wednesday’s field at West Taylor Elementary, it created a vacuum that, in turn, vaulted each of Fairmont Senior, East Fairmont and North Marion into the league’s upper hierarchy.

In a meet that featured just seven of the Big 10’s 13 teams, Marion County combined for one team conference championship, two team conference runners-up, a team third place finish, and 12 Top 10 individual finishes across the boys’ and girls’ races, including both individual Big 10 Conference champions.

The Fairmont Senior boys predictably won the team conference championship, their third-consecutive Big 10 crown, by a 10-point margin. The East Fairmont boys and Fairmont Senior girls, meanwhile, each finished as conference runners-up. And then the North Marion girls’ team made somewhat of a surprise push to earn a third-place finish.

“The value of this race changes year to year. Last year it was big because our competition was Bridgeport, but this year our competition is Frankfort, so (today) was just all about fine-tuning things,” said Fairmont Senior boys’ coach Dayton McVicker. “We were just trying to sharpen it up a little bit.”

The eventual victors of both team championships — Fairmont Senior in the boys’ race and Preston in the girls’ race — were foreseen outcomes entering Wednesday that, in all likelihood, wouldn’t have changed even if the full slate of conference teams were eligible to compete.

Individually, however, both of the boys’ and girls’ races resulted in upsets. In the boys’ race, Fairmont Senior’s Tyler Hayes overtook pre-race favorite and Polar Bear teammate Logan Zuchelli for the conference crown, while in the girls’ race, Fairmont Senior’s Lydia Falkenstein earned a landmark victory by defeating each of East Fairmont’s Erykah Christopher, the defending Class AA state champion, and Preston’s Allie Martin, the reigning Big 10 Conference champ.

“I was nervous at the start line definitely,” said Falkenstein, who finished third to Christopher and Martin at the same West Taylor Elementary course on Sept. 19 at the Bearcat Invitational, “but I had confidence I could beat them; it wasn’t going to be an easy race, but I knew I could beat them if I really dug deep.”

Falkenstein, who has overcome early-season injuries to charge right back into Class AA’s state title conversation, clocked a winning time of 19:23.83 on Wednesday — nearly a full-minute better then her Sept. 19 time — to clear Christopher’s runner-up time of 19:35.59 by almost 12 seconds and Martin’s third-place time of 20:20.82 by nearly a minute.

“She started a little bit slow — the first three or four girls went out really fast the first mile — and I think she got a little panicked, but she was mature enough to settle in,” said Fairmont Senior girls’ coach Mark Offutt. “Then once she decided to go, she just started picking them off and there was nothing anyone else could do. It was pretty cool to watch.”

“With Erykah, Preston’s (Martin) ran her legs off the first mile pushing her and trying to mess with Fairmont Senior,” East Fairmont girls’ and boys’ coach Kenny Hibbs said, “and then they (Christopher and Martin) paid for it and Erykah ended up just running out of gas I think.”

In the boys’ race, Hayes and Zuchelli were expected to finish 1-2 for the Polar Bears, but it was Zuchelli who entered the day as a considerable favorite and on the fast track to a potential Class AA state title and Hayes who came into the meet laboring through what has been a trying individual season thus far in relation to his lofty standards. But on Wednesday, Zuchelli was snakebitten by an off day, McVicker said, and Hayes bolted into first place at a time of 16:33.37.

“The start of the season hasn’t gone how I planned, but I always stay true to myself and I never let it get me down. I know I can win any race that I step foot in and it just worked out today,” said Hayes, who cleared Zuchelli’s runner-up time by of 16:40.19 by a tick under seven seconds. “I kind of used Logan as a stepping stone because he starts races faster than me so I just gauge off of him on the back and I was just focused on trying to win today.”

“Logan ran 45 seconds slower than he did the last time we were here and he just felt and looked terrible from the beginning — he just had an off race,” McVicker said. “I still think he’s our No. 1 moving forward and I’m sure he’s still the favorite to win the state title — I have no doubt in that — but Tyler looked decent up front as our No. 2 runner and I’m hoping it gives him more confidence.”

Along with Falkenstein and Christopher as the Nos. 1 and 2 in the girls’ race, Marion County had an additional four girls earn all-conference first team honors by finishing in the Top 11 while another seven nabbed all-conference second team honors with Top 21 finishes.

North Marion freshman Taylor Hess was the county’s next best finisher behind Falkenstein and Christopher as she powered the Lady Huskies’ third-place team efforts with a fourth place individual finish. She clocked an impressive personal record time of 20:51.70, which was nearly a full minute faster than her Sept. 19 outing at the same course.

“She dropped a whole minute and finishing in fourth, we didn’t expect her to be up that high,” North Marion girls’ coach Keri Richardson said of Hess, “but she just had this goal in her mind that she was going to try to run with somebody different she usually doesn’t run with, and she just stuck there pretty good.”

Fairmont Senior freshman Bella Haught and North Marion sophomore Addie Elliott also cracked the Top 10 in seventh and eighth, respectively, and FSHS senior Sophia Tomana snagged the last all-conference first team spot with an 11th place finish.

Along with the all-conference trio of Falkenstein, Haught and Tomana, Fairmont Senior also got a 14th place finish from sophomore Neveah Premo and a 15th place finish from freshman Caroline Logue to put its entire five-girl lineup on an all-conference team en route to the team’s conference runners-up.

“All season long, our girls have each had good individual races, but we haven’t really put it together as a team,” Offutt said. “Today we all did better as a team, and overall, as a team, it’s probably one of our better races.”

North Marion, meanwhile, got all-conference performances from Hess (4th), Elliott (8th), Madison Hayes (12th) and Rylee Delovich (21st), and freshman Megan McGinty was just a few slots away as the Huskies’ fifth qualifier, finishing 23rd overall.

East Fairmont’s girls had Christopher, freshman Sophia Schnore (13th) and Lainey Barnes (19th) finish as all-conference, but as a whole, it was an off kilter day for the Lady Bees, according to Hibbs.

Marion County’s dominance over the girls’ all-conference teams, however, was overmatched by the county’s rule on the boys’ all-conference teams. Combined, Fairmont Senior and East Fairmont logged the Top 6 individual finishers, eight of the 11 all-conference first team spots, and 11 total all-conference picks.

“The boys actually ran pretty darn well. I’m pleased with what they did,” said Hibbs, with the EFHS boys’ runners-up total of 38 points finishing 39 points ahead of Lewis County’s third-place total. “All season, our Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 have been kind of a jumble and today they all ran well.”

Freshman Drew Moore led the Bees with a third-place individual finish in what Hibbs said was an impressive performance from him as he clocked a 17:06.74. Fellow freshman Blake Hunt was just two spots behind in fifth at 17:50.44 and sophomore Josh McPherson also earned a Top 10 nod in sixth at 17:52.26. The trio was joined by senior Luke Hawranick in 11th to give the Bees a quartet of all-conference first team selections, and East’s fifth qualifying runner in Charley Hullderman handily made the all-conference second team by finishing in 14th overall.

Fairmont Senior also had four runners slot onto the all-conference first team, as Hayes, Zuchelli, Jasper Brown (4th) and Elijah Hanning (9th) all finished in the Top 10. The Polar Bears’ fifth runner in sophomore Tyler Morris, meanwhile, came in 13th to get a second team spot.

“The two Tylers (Hayes and Morris) had good runs, and Jasper did good, too,” McVicker said. “Overall, nobody had a horrible performance.”

North Marion’s boys’ team finished fifth overall, defeating only Grafton, but Huskies freshman Elijah Frank did finish a team-best 18th overall to take an all-conference second team spot.

All three Marion County teams, Grafton and Philip Barbour — pending the Colts return to either yellow or green on the COVID-19 metrics map — are slated to reconvene next Wednesday at Frankfort High School for the Class AA Region I meet, with the girls’ race scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. followed by the boys’ race at 4:15 p.m.

Email Bradley Heltzel at bheltzel@timeswv.com or follow him on Twitter @bradheltzTWV.

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