Originally Published: September 5, 2012 10:08 p.m.
The Ray Wherley Invitational prep cross-country meet will mark its 40th anniversary Saturday morning at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and the Prescott-based invite's longevity is largely a testament to its popular format.
Prescott High coach and race director Clark Tenney said 25 high school teams with a total of 700-plus boys' and girls' runners from Divisions I-IV are competing this weekend, representing the largest field in several years.
The host Badgers and fellow locals Bradshaw Mountain and Chino Valley are in the mix, as well as several squads from as far away as Phoenix and Tucson.
Ray Wherley, Prescott High's former cross-country coach from 1968-80 who also had a couple stints afterward as the Badgers' lead mentor, said he started the Prescott Invitational in 1972 with a focus on the team concept.
He added that the size of the meet's field has remained fairly constant through the years, with as many as 25 clubs taking part. On Saturday, the boys run a 3.1-mile course, while the girls race a 2.6-mile course. The meet goes from 9 a.m.-1 p.m.
"In the peak of its interest, we used to get most of the (former Class) 5A schools out of the Valley," said Wherley, who plans to attend Saturday's race with his grandchildren. "Mesa Mountain View was a perennial power up here."
In this meet, each participating team's Nos. 1-7 boys' and girls' runners have about a "50-50" chance at medaling, Wherley added, which is rare at other meets conducted in any given season.
Essentially, the invite is split into seven varsity races instead of one big race in order to give every level of racer a chance to shine. In other words, all of the squads' No. 1 runners - those with the consistently fastest times - race against each other, all of the No. 2 runners race against each other, and so on, from Nos. 3-7.
The invite begins at 9 a.m. with a non-varsity freshman and sophomore race, followed by a non-varsity junior and senior race, before the varsity races get under way.
At the end of the varsity races, around 1 p.m., each team's score is tabulated based on its Nos. 1-7 runners' times to determine overall placement. Individuals from each race who place earn medals.
"The format has a good bit to do with keeping coaches' interest in bringing kids back to it," Wherley said. "The (Nos.) 5, 6 and 7 kids oftentimes don't get really any kind of recognition, even though they are vital to a team performance (at varsity meets). The format of this is really to equalize everyone. The No. 7 runner as far as a team performance is just as important as the No. 1."
Tenney and PHS Athletic Director Mark Goligoski, who help put on the tournament these days, both raced in the Prescott Invitational as Badgers years ago.
Tenney said Saturday's meet represents the 35th annual Prescott/Ray Wherley Invite, which does not appear to reflect Wherley's records that show 1972 as the first year. Since he became race director, Tenney said he has kept his own running tally of the number of races through the years.
In any event, Tenney's grateful to Wherley and what he's contributed to the high school cross-country community in Prescott.
"The format (of the race) is really unique, and we're excited about that because it's different than any other invite we go to," Tenney said. "It's an honor to carry on the tradition and the legacy of a great coach and man (in Wherley)."
Wherley said six teams, including Prescott High, competed in the first Prescott Invite held at Antelope Hills Golf Course in 1972, prior to the meet's eventual relocation to the Embry-Riddle campus in north Prescott.
"We can never give enough thanks to Embry-Riddle now that they've really come on board," he said.
The invitational's course has changed several times over the years, but Wherley credited the coaches and teachers at PHS who followed him for continuing to operate the meet.
In 1995, the Prescott Invitational was renamed the Ray Wherley Invitational in Wherley's honor.
"It's obviously special because of having the name attached to it," Wherley said. "It was very embryonic in that stage (in the early 1970s). It wasn't for sure that it would last, but there's been some very good people involved with that who have kept it going."