At the conclusion of last season, the Canal Winchester High School boys cross country team expected to return all but one of its seven runners who competed in the postseason, including its top runner.
Unfortunately for the Indians, Wyatt Gardner and Jamih-ran Jackson -- their No. 1 and No. 7 runners, respectively, last year as freshmen -- moved out of the school district, leaving additional holes to fill.
Last season, Gardner won the MSL-Buckeye Division meet in 16 minutes, 51 seconds and was the Indians' only runner to qualify for the Division I regional meet, where he finished 55th (17:15.33).
"We have to replace some graduates, but the biggest blow was losing Wyatt Gardner when his family moved to Liberty Union," said coach John Bender, whose team opened Aug. 24 in the 18-team Finishtiming Classic at Wilmington College, finishing seventh (236 points) behind champion Cincinnati Elder (40). "Jamihran Jackson is a big loss, too, because he would have moved up and scored well for us this season.
"We were sorry to lose those athletes, but we have some enthusiastic kids and they're working hard to get better. With the way they're improving, I'm hoping that we'll be a competitive team by the end of the season."
Returning for the Indians are seniors Nick Sweeney and Joe Warnimont, juniors Jason Appel and Bryce Carroll and sophomores Imani Daniels and Robert Moore. Bender also is counting on freshmen Ethan Fusek, Will Morrison, Luke Schirr and Avery Warner to make an impact this season.
Appel paced the Indians in the Finishtiming Classic, placing 24th (17:41.78) of 351 runners.
"Nick is possibly the most improved kid we've ever had and he's grown by leaps and bounds," Bender said. "Our freshmen won the (junior high) MSL (title) last year and they have a good work ethic and a lot of potential."
Gardner led the Indians in the 13-team district 1 meet last year at Watkins Memorial, finishing 12th (17:27.3). Appel (32nd, 18:09.45) was next, followed by Carroll (67th, 19:07.04), Moore (70th, 19:16.3), 2013 graduate Collins (74th, 19:23.45), Daniels (78th, 19:33.84) and Jackson (82nd, 19:57.82).
Canal Winchester, which finished ninth (255) at district behind champion Westerville North (45), has moved from the MSL-Buckeye to the OCC-Cardinal this season along with Dublin Jerome, Dublin Scioto, Hilliard Bradley, Hilliard Darby, Westerville Central, Westerville North and Westerville South.
The Indians placed second (58) in the MSL-Buckeye meet last year behind Teays Valley (39).
"Competing in our league will be a real challenge because Westerville North is one of the best teams in the state, and Dublin Jerome and Dublin Scioto are really strong, too," Bender said. "I like the kids' attitudes a lot and I'm expecting we'll see a lot of improvement."
Girls runners aiming to build on last year
The girls cross country team is looking to improve on last season, when it finished second (59) in the MSL-Buckeye meet behind Teays Valley (30) and placed sixth (143) in the 14-team Division I, district 1 meet behind champion Hilliard Davidson (35).
The Indians are competing in the OCC-Cardinal this year.
"We have a chance to be a really good team," Bender said. "We're hoping we can be competitive in the OCC this year, even though Dublin Jerome and Dublin Scioto have good teams every year, and Westerville Central has some good kids. We're also hoping we can go farther in the tournament."
Canal Winchester returns five of its seven runners who competed at district last year in junior Julie Tennison and sophomores Julia Cook, Cassidy Long, Chloe Palmer and Megan Tamasovich.
Long paced the Indians at district, placing 21st (20:53.38) of 97 runners. Tamasovich was next (22nd, 21:03.08), followed by Palmer (24th, 21:08.81), 2013 graduates Elizabeth Kifer (34th, 21:30.7) and Taryn Meidl (42nd, 21:49.55), Cook (44th, 21:51.91) and Tennison (49th, 22:17.78).
Also on the team are seniors Madison Adams, Sarah Collins, Morgan Jenkins, Natalie Tennison, Nicole Tennison, Kasey Pastor and Ellie Pence, sophomore Joelle Zuberi and freshman Ashley Clubb.
"Joelle couldn't run last year because of health issues, but she's really bloomed into our No. 1 runner," Bender said. "Cassidy was our MVP runner last year and we're expecting her to have another good season. And Ashley's our top freshman who I think will become a top seven runner."
Canal Winchester opened in the 15-team Finishtiming Classic, finishing fifth (134) behind champion Mason (35).
Zuberi was the Indians' top finisher, placing 15th (20:21.69) of 282 runners.
Volleyball team making strides with new coach
The girls volleyball team opened its first season under coach Kris Kern on Aug. 17, going 1-2 in the Marysville Spike-Off.
The Indians beat Hilliard Darby 25-18, 25-16 but lost to Olentangy Orange 21-25, 25-23, 25-22 and lost to Jonathan Alder 25-22, 25-20.
"The kids are concentrating on taking small steps right now because they understand that turning this team into a winner is a process," said Kern, who coached Pickerington North the past seven seasons and entered this season with a career record of 686-81. "We're having fun together and this team is getting better."
Last season, Canal Winchester finished 7-15 overall and placed sixth (4-10) in the MSL-Buckeye behind champion Bloom-Carroll (14-0).
The Indians have moved to the OCC-Cardinal this season and opened league play Aug. 27 against Westerville South. They travel to take on defending league champion Westerville Central on Thursday, Aug. 29.
Last year in the OCC-Cardinal, Westerville Central went 14-0, followed by Bradley (11-3), Kilbourne (9-5), Darby (6-8), Scioto (5-9), Westerville North (5-9), Jerome (4-10) and Westerville South (3-11).
"The girls' goal is to win 11 matches and be competitive in the OCC," Kern said. "Westerville Central and Hilliard Bradley are at another level right now, so the goal is to finish third in the OCC this year. We're still building this team, but I don't know that I'd want to play Canal in the (Division I district) tournament because we're getting better."
Four players who started multiple matches last year have returned in seniors Kalila Bell (middle hitter), Kacey Bingmer (setter) and Lauren Ray (outside hitter) and sophomore Maddi Porter (defensive specialist).
Other returnees are seniors Ashley Borror (outside hitter), Amanda Henderson (outside hitter) and Savannah Saeger (middle hitter).
Rounding out the roster are juniors Raven Hamilton (outside hitter), Paige Hughes (utility), Haley Webster (libero) and Waltenette Williams (defensive specialist) and sophomore Taylor Griffin (outside hitter).
"We took the girls to Camp Akita (in Logan) to really challenge them mentally and physically, and they embraced it," Kern said. "We had them do things like climb a 70-foot tower and swing off of it and learn to shoot real bows and arrows, and they answered every challenge we threw at them. We're growing tighter as a team and I'm keeping my eyes on our improvement at the moment."
Football team set for season opener
The football team opens the season Friday, Aug. 30, at home against Olentangy, marking the first meeting between the programs.
Olentangy has a new coach in Mark Solis, who spent the past two seasons at Lorain and has a career record of 101-50. He replaces Ed Terwilliger, who retired after compiling a 138-114 record in 24 seasons with the Braves.
Last season, Olentangy went 10-2 and qualified for the Division I playoffs.
Under Solis, the Braves will look to ride a fast-paced, no-huddle offense spearheaded by quarterback Noah Durst. Other key players include running back Hayden Hunter, wide receivers Anthony Allocco and Victor Elmurr and lineman Andy Simms (6-foot-3, 275 pounds), who is a Division I college recruit.
Canal Winchester, which is embarking on life in the OCC after being in the MSL since 1966 and all but two years since 1957, went 9-3 last season, falling in the second round of the Division II playoffs to Marion-Franklin, 44-14.
The Indians return three starters from their spread offense in Zach Bontempo (QB), Jalen Smith (WR) and Skyler Scott (WR).
Bontempo had seven catches for 78 yards last year as a wide receiver but has moved under center to replace 2013 graduate Isaac Pifer. Last season, Scott had 31 receptions for 666 yards and six touchdowns and Smith had 14 catches for 132 yards.
Among the key players on the Indians' defense is safety Khari Golden, who had 100 tackles, eight interceptions and two forced fumbles last year.
Olentangy and Canal Winchester both are in Division II, Region 5 this season, adding to the importance of their matchup.
"We feel like our scrimmages prepared us for what we're going to see (Aug. 30)," Solis said. "We saw Marion-Franklin, Brookhaven and Eastmoor Academy, three athletic teams. (Canal Winchester) has some solid athletes and they're going to be a formidable opponent. The right side of their offensive line could be pretty good and I really like their quarterback (Bontempo). He does a good job of manning their offense."