The Cullman Invitational is finally back where it belongs.
After five years at Sportsman Lake, the Bearcats’ annual meet returned to the Cullman High campus Saturday, debuting a shiny new course that drew rave reviews from its first batch of competitive runners.
Participating student-athletes happily said goodbye to the tricky terrain and dangerous, downhill finish from last year’s race. The recently designed trail, far different from the road course of Cullman Invitational past, featured a double loop into the woods behind the soccer fields, a 100-meter stretch of pavement and a 300-meter Olympic-style finish on the Bearcats’ state-of-the-art track.
One of the biggest fans of Cullman’s new digs was St. Bernard’s Logan Ayers, who won the Class 1A-4A varsity girls race on Saturday to lead a strong overall showing by the Saints. The 1A cross country powerhouse won the varsity girls and boys team titles in the small-school division and also claimed the first-place runners in the boys and girls junior varsity 2-mile races.
“It’s definitely better,” Ayers said of the campus course compared to the 2011 trail at Sportsman Lake. “It’s a lot flatter and it’s not as windy and curvy. I liked it a lot better.”
Ayers immediately grabbed the lead off the gun and never looked back, finishing 42 seconds ahead of Ayleana Mami, her teammate, in second place.
St. Bernard’s girls capped off the 15-point team triumph over Altamont with contributing results from Caitlyn Varquez in seventh, Allison Hubert in 11th and Shivangi Patel in 12th.
As expected, Ayers was pleased to notch her fourth individual victory of the season, but she was even happier with the way it impacted the Saints as they near sectionals and state.
“It’s like a morale boost for our team when we win,” she said. “All of our girls keep improving, and we keep getting faster. It’s good for our team, and we’re getting better.”
The small-school girls race was decided far before the finish line, but the boys battle came down to the final stretch.
St. Bernard’s Seamus Russell was hot on teammate Will Faulk’s heels from the 1-mile mark on, and that’s where he remained right up until the end in another 1-2 finish for the Saints.
“It felt really cool, especially because he’s my teammate,” Russell said of Faulk edging him out by a single second. “I was just trying to plan to catch him in the first mile, but then I stuck with him, so I was happy with that.”
Faulk is used to running out front on his own but was happy to have the company of his friend and teammate on Saturday. He’s hoping the two can continue that trend with the postseason right around the corner.
“He’s done pretty well this season, and he’ll get a lot faster,” Faulk said of Russell. “If we finish like this at state, we can increase our chances of winning a lot more.”
Oscar Perez landed in fourth, Samuel Robles took 11th and Thomas Russell was 13th to seal the deal for St. Bernard’s boys.
The race for fourth place in the varsity girls 5A-6A race was just as exciting as Faulk and Russell’s showdown and also came down to a pair of local teammates, this time Cullman’s Marisa Franklin and Anna Bailey.
Bailey, only a freshman, held a sizeable lead over the Bearcats’ No. 1 runner for most of the 5K before Franklin stormed ahead in the final 100 meters to finish one second ahead of the youngster.
“I’ve never run that hard in my life. It was pretty intense,” Bailey said of the ending. “I knew she was going to come up on me. I told my dad Marisa would pass out before she let me beat her.”
Franklin never quite reached that point, but she did admit to being a bit nervous that she wasn’t going to be the first Cullman runner to finish the race.
“It really scared me because she was a good 50 feet in front of me from the first mile,” she said of Bailey. “I didn’t think I was going to get her. I was really proud of her, though, because she’s a freshman and she’s been working really hard.”
Megan Pendley and Hillary Crider finished in sixth and seventh behind Franklin and Bailey. Those results, paired with Savannah B. Smith’s 13th-place run, motored the Bearcat girls to an easy team title over Hartselle in the big-school division.
Home-field advantage didn’t quite work out for Cullman’s boys, who finished second as a team behind Grissom.
Devan Hall and Nicholas Fillinger anchored the Bearcats in third and sixth, respectively. That duo was trailed by Jesse Burroughs in 11th, John Weeks in 14th and Stephen McNeal in 19th.
St. Bernard received a 1-2-3 finish from Jaden Edge, Morgan Matz and Leahrose Mami in the JV girls 2-mile race.
Cullman’s top runners were Anna Franklin in ninth, Bradi Ruehl in 11th and Maddie Graves in 13th.
The Saints’ Steven Mami bested the field in the JV boys 2-mile race, while the Bearcats lifted the team trophy behind third- and fourth-place finishes from Walker Caretti and Tucker Adkinson. St. Bernard’s Jalen Lee snagged seventh.
The Saints will host their annual Oktoberfest meet next Saturday. Cullman and several other local schools are expected to make up part of the field of 20-plus teams.
“It’ll be home-turf advantage, and I’m looking forward to it,” Ayers said. “I’m really excited. I’m pumped up for it.”
‰ Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at email@example.com.