Allen runners burn up the course — and then some

Allen Community College's cross country teams celebrated the men's title at the Red Devil Duals Saturday, then watched as head coach Vince DeGrado's golf cart caught fire and exploded after the race.

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Sports

October 5, 2020 - 10:00 AM

Allen Community College’s cross country runners pose for a photo next to the charred remains of head coach Vince DeGrado’s golf cart, which caught fire and exploded after their races Saturday in Iola. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

Sure, there was plenty of post-race fireworks Saturday (see related story here) but Allen Community College’s cross country teams had plenty of excitement during the event itself.

The Allen men’s squad, currently ranked second in the nation, cruised to the Red Devil Duals team title, with five runners placing in the top 12. Meanwhile, the Allen women — who don’t have enough runners to qualify for team places — also placed two runners in the top 10, both of whom are local products, Iola High graduate Rachel Bycroft, and Crest alumnus Elka Billings.

That Red Devil coach Vince DeGrado’s golf cart caught on fire and exploded after the race only made the day more memorable, he said.

Allen Community College runner Rachel Bycroft, an Iola native, places fifth at the Red Devil Duals in Iola.Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

It was an eventful day for a meet that almost never happened because the college’s original plans to host the event at Allen County Country Club had to change because of a maintenance project there.

That left DeGrado scrambling to find another location. He approached the owners of the old Cedarbrook Golf Course, who quickly agreed.

That gave him 10 days to turn several acres of ground that had been untouched for months into a suitable running surface.

“It’s a tough course because of the footing,” he said. “The owners even helped me knock it down, but we knew the footing was going to be rough. 

“But it’s cross country, man,” he quickly added.

Bycroft placed fifth in the women’s race, finishing the 5K route in 20 minutes, 16.9 seconds. Not far behind was Billings in 10th, who finished in 20:30.64.

Elka Billings runs for Allen Community College Saturday at the Red Devil Duals.Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

McKenna Esfield was Allen’s only other female runner. She took 28th in 22:19.38.

“It’s really cool to have local athletes running really fast,” DeGrado said. “We want to get homegrown people to stay, and not just to stay, but for them to have success.

“Running for me isn’t easy,” DeGrado said. “But if you buy in, your times will improve. And these girls have bought in like crazy.”

He noted the Red Devil runners have competed against many of the same teams so far this season.

“They did great,” DeGrado said. “I told them before, don’t focus on your times, focus on where you’re at in the race. Did you improve in position among other teams?”

Allen Community College runner Devan Crow finishes third Saturday at the Red Devil Duals in Iola.Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

ON THE men’s side, Allen’s Devan Crow took third in the 8K, finishing in 25:42.61, followed by Brig Merritt in fifth at 25:52.08, Henos Andebrhan in eighth at 26:43.30, Owen Taylor in 11th at 27:09.06 and Michael McMorris in 12th at 27:12.57.

That allowed the Red Devils to easily dispatch Hutchinson Community College for the team title. Allen wound up with 32 points with Hutchin in second at 53.

Others running for the Allen men were Phillip Semien, who placed 21st at 28:04.87, Burch Greene in 27th at 28:33.11 and Iola native Bret Plumlee in 47th at 30:24.41.

“As a unit, we had guys step up,” Degrado said. “When you want to win a national title, we need guys to step up. We’re going to win together and we’re going to lose together.”

Allen won the team event with erase, even with its No. 3 runner, Raymon Gonzalez, abandoning his run midway through because of injury.

“I’m not worried,” DeGrado said. “He’ll be fin.”

DEGRADO noted the ACC men are ranked second in NJCAA Division 2, while Hutchinson is ranked second in NJCAA Division 1. 

The difference in the divisions is based on the types of scholarships offered by the schools, and whether a school’s roster may have more international students. As Division 2, Allen cannot offer the same types of scholarships, nor do the Red Devils have international students on the roster.

“Our goal is to win a national title, and we’re going to do it the right way,” DeGrado said. 

If there was one drawback from Saturday, it was that Cowley County Community College — the top ranked Division 2 school — was unable to attend because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

DeGrado lamented the lost opportunity to take on the Red Devils’ key rival as the cross country season nears its climax. 

Allen has a single regular season event remaining this month at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before shutting things down until regional and national competitions.

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