Leonard ‘Lion of Loughborough’ after guiding U17 men to victory

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Recent wintry weather, accompanied by heavy overnight rain on Friday, gave way to the inevitable mud-bath for all athletes competing at the annual UK Inter-Counties Cross Country Championships.

The event, which also served as the finale to the UK Cross Challenge, was held at Prestwold Hall, near Loughborough, Leicestershire, on Saturday.

Despite these conditions, it was an exceptionally brilliant day for Morpeth Harrier Rory Leonard, who won the U17 Men’s event by around 23 seconds, from Cambridge and Coleridge’s Tom Keen, who had won the bronze medal in the English National Cross Country Championships.

On Saturday, however, it was a different story altogether as Leonard, who can now very easily be dubbed the Lion of Loughborough, purely for the tenacity of his performance, stole away in the last quarter of the event, to lead the NE U17 Men’s squad to a handsome team victory.

In addition to all of this, Leonard also won a very lucrative prize as the winner of the UK Cross Challenge, with the final being incorporated into the event.

Rory comes from good pedigree. His father Tony was a AAAs Champion and a European bronze medallist, and his mother Sharon, running with the surname of Little, was twelfth in the Women’s English National Cross Country and second in the Women’s Northern Cross Country, both of these achievements going back to the early 80s.

Assisting Leonard in the NE team victory was Morpeth club colleague Daniel Dixon, who finished in 25th place.

Other counters for the region in this age group were Sam Charlton, of Wallsend Harriers, who finished 11th, and Josh Cowperthwaite, of Middlesbrough AC, who was 14th.

Another Morpeth Harrier in the U7 Men’s line-up was Daniel Melling, who was 85th in a 281-strong finishing field. Melling was seventh home for the region.

Although no Morpeth Harriers were involved in the winning and second-placed North East U13 and U15 Boys squads, their efforts on behalf of the region are to be warmly applauded, particularly North Shields Poly’s Josh Blevins, who managed to win himself an individual silver medal in the U13 Boys event.

Birtley’s Chris Perkins just missed out on bronze by a couple of seconds.

The region’s U15 Boys were led home by New Marske’s Archie Lowe, who finished seventh.

Led by Morpeth Harriers Northern Champion Carl Avery, who produced an excellent run to finish fifth in what were now atrocious running conditions, the North East Senior Men finished ninth behind winners Middlesex.

Avery was 37 seconds adrift of an individual medal.

Other North East scoring counts for the Senior Men came from Middlesbrough and Cleveland’s Greg Jayasuriya (48th), Gateshead’s Conrad Franks (88th), Sunderland Harrier Kevin Jeffress (94th), New Marske’s Dean Newton (99th) and Jarrow and Hebburn’s Andy Burn (109th).

Another Morpeth Harrier competing in the Senior Men’s event was Chris Smith, making his Inter Counties debut, but his run became disastrous, as somewhere in the extremely muddy course his electronic chip became dislodged, and although he finished respectably, his official position could not be recorded.

Led by 19th-placed North East Champion Kieran Hedley of Morpeth Harriers, the region’s U20 Men also finished as ninth team.

The region’s Senior Women managed to finish an excellent fifth behind a very rampant Surrey, who won from Lancaster (2nd), and Yorkshire (3rd).

Danielle Hodgkinson, of Birchfield, formerly Wallsend Harriers, led home the North East scoring six, who included Morpeth pair Emma Holt and Jane Hodgson, who both produced excellent runs, to finish 34th and 42nd in a 270-strong finishing field, as second and third counters.

The North East U15 Girls’ squad also managed to finish as fifth team, behind easy winners Scotland West, with Scotland East second, and Yorkshire leading the English challenge in third place.

Disappointingly, Morpeth’s Holly Peck could not make the region’s scoring four, when she finished 131st overall in a finishing field of 304.

Peck will be hoping for better fortune in this weekend’s English Schools Cross Country Championships in Leeds.

There were no Morpeth Harriers in the North East U20 Women’s line-up, who managed to finish 11th behind winners Kent.

One Morpeth Harrier who can feel very proud and happy with her performance, however, is U17 Woman Gracie Hufton, who managed to come home as third scorer in a North East squad which finished 13th behind winners Yorkshire.

The region’s U13 Girls, with no Morpeth Harrier among their line-up, finished as 15th team behind winners Kent.

Despite the disappointment of an under-strength North East Senior Men’s squad not being able to carry out their accustomed victory, the overall performance was still described by respective managers Stewy Bell and Lynn Cooper as an excellent day for the region, particularly highlighting the individual medal achievements, along with the three sets of team medals.