Bradley Ahrens

Windsor junior Bradley Ahrens leads the field in the 1,600 during the Class 4 state track and field championships in Jefferson City on May 28. Right behind Ahrens is West Plains senior Riley Simpson, who won the 1,600, 3,200 and 800 that day.

Every summer, preparing for the running wars of fall, the Festus boys and girls cross country teams attend the Joe Bill Dixon running camp in southern Missouri.

Or rather, they endure it.

There are no amenities like beds or buffets as the Tigers join runners from other schools, including host West Plains, for five days of spartan training in the Mark Twain National Forest. Not only is it great team bonding for the Tigers, it also gives them a good look at who the Zizzers, their chief rivals, will have out on the race courses in the fall.

The Tiger boys under head coach Bryant Wright are challenging Dixon’s West Plains program for “juggernaut” honors. Dixon has won 25 state championships – 13 boys’ titles and 12 on the girls’ side, including last fall in Class 4. Wright is closing the gap on his friend and rival with nine on the boys ledger, including an active streak of seven in a row, but has some distance to go with the girls, with two (2014 and 2017).

This year’s running camp is July 11-15 at the 900-acre North Fork River Ranch. Many an individual state champion has emerged from those deep woods.

One Zizzer the Festus boys are done chasing is senior Riley Simpson. The competition between Simpson and the Tigers this school year reached epic proportions.

“The camp builds the endurance in your body, but also builds strength and pushes you past your own limits and makes you a better competitor,” said Simpson, who will run cross country and track for Missouri Southern State University in Joplin.

When cross country went from four classes to five last year, West Plains stayed in Class 4 and the Tigers moved from Class 3 to 4. There was Simpson at the Gans Creek Course in Columbia, hoping to lead his team over Festus and end the Tigers’ incredible streak. He won the individual title going away, with Tiger sophomore Cullen Krieg finishing second. But Festus won the team title and the Zizzers were third.

At the Class 4 state track and field championships at Jefferson City High School on May 28, there was Simpson again, standing in the way of several Tigers vying for wins in the distance triple, the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs. First, sophomore Ian Schram and junior Jacob Meyers got their crack at Simpson for the Tigers in the 3,200. Simpson won in 9:19.23, with Schram second in 9:27.03 and Meyers fifth in 9:33.36, but Festus outpointed Simpson, 12 points to 10. At day’s end, Festus won a team trophy in fourth, while the Zizzers were sixth.

“I love Riley, but I want to be that guy,” Schram said. “Honestly, I wanted to beat him this year but I’m glad he got to end his senior year like this.”

Simpson also won the 1,600 in a closer battle, clocking 4:22.13 to beat second-place Schram by three seconds, with Festus sophomore Cullen Krieg coming in fifth in 4:29.22. Windsor junior Bradley Ahrens led the 1,600 after the first lap but ended up sixth in 4:29.27.

“(Ahrens) took the same approach in the sectional meet and we didn’t go with him, and he almost won the sectional championship,” Simpson said.

Despite medaling in seventh and eighth, Krieg and Meyers were no match for Simpson in the 800. He completed the distance triple crown, crossing the line in 1:56.64.

“It’s always pretty even. Between the 800 and mile, Cullen and Ian put up a good race most of the time and sometimes they do beat me, and I like that because it prevents me from getting cocky or arrogant and it makes us both better,” Simpson said.

Don’t get me wrong, these guys are good friends. But when the starting pistol fires, they all want to beat each other. Ahrens has become close to the Tiger runners and he’s put the Owls on the map in the competitive world of distance running.

“Like Bradley said, it’s like family,” Krieg said. “Even though we’re not on the same team, we always congratulate each other after the race.”