Central Hardin senior Ben Gardner has a really good senior season.

It concluded by walking out of the Kentucky Horse Park, leading the Bruins to their best finish in school history — 10th — and accomplishing an individual goal of placing in the top 20 — 18th.

Gardner was selected as the Boys’ Cross Country Runner of the Year.

“I’m shocked and proud. I wasn’t expecting this at all,” he said. “To be frank, I just kind of showed up, in a sense. ... I work hard with my friends. I work hard with my teammates and that was the end of it. We won some. We lost some. We prevailed as a team. We got our PRs and then we went home. To come back and be awarded this … I put in the work to better myself and better my team, but it wasn’t something to get some sort of award. So to get some sort of recognition is really different and really special.”

Nine days after finishing second in the Lincoln Trail Heartland Conference Championships, Gardner led Central Hardin to a second-place finish at the Class 3-A, Region 2 championships and a berth at the state meet.

“For us seniors, (finishing in the top 10 at the state meet) was definitely at the top of our list,” he said. “We wanted to prove that collectively we had gained from last year and we were stronger and faster and we could lead without those we had lost, and we could strive above them, not because we didn’t like them, but in making them proud. They taught us. They worked us hard. Our coach worked us hard and we wanted to show them that was not in vain and that we’ve become better since last year.”

Gardner said an early race in particular got his juices flowing and laid the foundation for the rest of the season. He finished fourth at the Hillbilly Run at Thomas Nelson on Sept. 22 in a personal best 16:14.43.

“My grandpa was there from Ohio. To have him and my family there cheering me on, that was the greatest race I’ve ever run,” Gardner said. “I was always trying to achieve that again, always trying to push forward. I was always playing with that in my head — maybe I can get in the 15s. That never happened, but it was still a goal to push on to the next race, to catch places and to hug the next guy tight as I could or fail trying.

“That reflected at the state meet because going into that I told my dad that I wanted to get in the top 20. I wanted to shoot for the top 15. I wanted to get on that podium so bad. I ran my heart out. That’s what I had to remind myself. It was about running my best race, not what is collectively shown on the state board. It was about what I did.

“Going into that final 300 or so, I knew I was in 21st. I knew if I was going to make it to 15, I first had to make it to 20. I made it to 19. I made it to 18 and by that time, the 17th guy had already crossed the line. At the end of the day, it was about doing everything I could with the limited amount of time I had left. The whole race, it feels long but it feels short. It’s over like that.”

Gardner was timed in 16:46.59, leading the Bruins into the top 10 by 13 points. He was followed by teammates Liam Dale (60th, 17:24.56), Austin Searcy (76th, 17:36.66), Ryan Getler (125th, 18:02.07), Marcus Abel (142nd, 18:14.30), Samual Bennett (144th, 18:15.97) and Jackson Flanagan (197th, 18:42.73).

“For me at least, I love how cross country is a perfect balance in chemistry of teamwork and individualism,” Gardner said. “You have to work hard and push yourself to the limit to become the best runner that you can be. But you have to fight for your team.

“Because it’s not as big as track and field, you get to know your boys. You get to know your men. They are your squad. They are your platoon. They are your family. You agree to disagree on things, but at the end of the day you are running for the same cause — to win, to prove that you have grown since the last race, that you are trying to become better.

“Even if you’re aren’t winning like you get the title, you are winning at something, you are winning at spirit, you are winning at heart as long as you are pushing yourself to the limit every possible time, even if you are having a bad day. Then again, when you’re having a bad day your limit is lower. But if you’re still pushing yourself to that limit, you won. You’re getting better.”

SOPHOMORE OF THE YEAR. Meade County’s Kizer Burnett had a talk with his coach before the conference championships.

“My coach said, ‘You’re looking about third in this race,’ Burnett said. “That’s close enough to No. 1, I’m gonna try to be No. 1. Well, the No. 1 guy, his best race was a 16-something and my best race was a 17-something at that moment. I thought, ‘He’s way up there, I’m not catching him.’ When the gun went fired, I was just feeling it. I took off and was in first at mid race. I heard a kid behind me, heard his breathing and his footsteps and thought, ‘I gotta speed up.’ I’ve already come this far, I’m not gonna blow it now. I kept pushing myself and pushing myself and ended up winning the race.”

Burnett has been selected as the Sophomore of the Year.

“My first thoughts were, ‘Really?’ I was kind of questioned it at first,” Burnett said of winning the award. “Winning conference is what stuck out to me. I’ve always wanted to achieve my goals. My goal was to win that race and I won that race. I kind of surprised myself. It sets a bigger goal, now that I’ve won conference, I’d like to win it again, and be closer to region champ. I think I finished eighth in the region, so I’d like to be at two or three, maybe even win the thing. And state, we’ll see when we get there.”

After winning the conference title by 20-plus seconds over Gardner, Burnett ran 17:48.59 in the Class-AAA, Region 2 championships, 17-plus seconds behind Gardner.

Then came the state meet.

“For me, it wasn’t really my best race, I could have done better probably,” said Burnett, whose first love is baseball and said he’s had a baseball and a glove in his hand since the age of 2. “But it was an amazing environment. You couldn’t ask for a better race. To go out there and see so many kids and so many want to win it and want to fight for it. To go out there and know kids are twice as fast as you and you have no chance getting close to them, just to know that makes you want to push harder and try your hardest to get a little closer to the top.

“If I look back at conference and how I ran there versus state, conference (terrain) is more flat. It’s not too hilly. You go to state and it had been raining, the course was soaked and you wer eankle-deep in mud. But it was all-out fun. They moved the start up because it was so wet and you had less time to spread out before that first corner. Everyone was crowded going around that little corner.”

He finished 109th in 17:54.56.

“I get this question a lot, ‘Why do you run?’ I like it because I’m good at it,” Burnett said. “I like to stay conditioned and it keeps me conditioned during summer. It’s fun going out for a run, talking with your friends and having a conversation while you’re running. Those 10 miles flies by. When you have nothing to talk about, it’s a long 10 miles.”

ALL-AREA BOYS’

CROSS COUNTRY TEAM

RUNNER OF THE YEAR

Ben Gardner, Central Hardin

SOPHOMORE OF THE YEAR

Kizer Burnett, Meade County

CO-COACHES OF THE YEAR

Jack Breunig, Elizabethtown

Tim Pennington, Central Hardin

FIRST TEAM

Ben Gardner, Central Hardin

Kizer Burnett, Meade County

Liam Dale, Central Hardin

Matthew Musgrave, Elizabethtown

Austin Searcy, Central Hardin

Ryan Getler, Central Hardin

Samual Bennett, Central Hardin

Brayden Blankenship, Meade County

Chase Hines, LaRue County

Max Morales, North Hardin

Kedrick Linn, North Hardin

Marcus Abel, Central Hardin

Mike Mathison can be reached at 270-505-1758 or mmathison@thenewsenterprise.com.

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