The strategy is going to change for the Hilliard Darby High School boys cross country team.

The strategy is going to change for the Hilliard Darby High School boys cross country team.

The Panthers have lost Joe Jackson, who now is running for Kentucky after finishing ninth in the Division I state meet last year in 15 minutes, 50.35 seconds. Jackson, who won OCC-Ohio Division and district championships last season, often was allowed to run his own race last season, leaving the other runners to devise a pack strategy. This season the pack is going to be more of a focus.

"We said last year that Joe could go in front and do his thing," coach Jon Agriesti said. "Now it's more of a pack mentality. We're going to have runners together running in a tight pack."

Outside of Jackson, the Panthers suffered through an injury-plagued season last year. Senior Matthew Hopke was out for the year and senior Cody Embree also missed significant time. They're back this year, and in attempt to keep them around, the Panthers are competing in two fewer regular-season meets. They ran in the Hot Summer Bash last Saturday at Galion Northmor, but did not compete in the varsity division, opting for the slower open division instead. They will run next in the McGowan Invitational on Sept. 6 at Watkins Memorial.

With Hopke and Embree returning to the team at full strength and with senior Jay McKenna returning after placing 41st (16:14.44) in the state meet last year, Agriesti thinks the Panthers have a solid group to lead a team that's deeper than last season. McKenna is battling injury right now and didn't compete last Saturday.

"I think there are a lot of teams -- especially around the area and in the state -- that have dismissed us a little bit since we've lost Joe," Agriesti said. "We're a deeper team than we were last year. Last year once we went through five runners, there wasn't as much. This year we have about a dozen people that can run."

Seniors Steven Jones and Kurt McGinnis and juniors Josh Burlile, Denton Thompson are also competing for varsity spots as well as sophomore Eric Mescher and freshmen Austin Alpeter and Troy Kelleher.

Burlile, McGinnis and Thompson were part of the team that scored 172 points to finish fifth at the regional meet as Pickerington North (96) edged Davidson (107) for the title. A week before that the Panthers scored 112 points to finish as district runner up to Davidson (45).

Darby also won its third consecutive OCC-Ohio championship last season, scoring 37 points to finish ahead of Gahanna (44), Newark (84), Lancaster (86),Westland (116) and Groveport (179).

Darby now is in the OCC-Central with Davidson, Central Crossing, Dublin Coffman, Thomas Worthington, Upper Arlington, Westland and Worthington Kilbourne.

The girls team also lost a strong front-runner in Erika Alpeter, who is competing at North Carolina State a year after finishing fifth at the state meet (18 minutes, 21.29 seconds).

The Panthers opened Aug. 20 in the New Albany Classic and scored 223 points to finish seventh as Canal Winchester (29) won. Darby will run Saturday in the Greenville Treaty City Invitational. Without Alpeter, the Panthers are planning to rely more on their pack philosophy and keeping times consistent from the first runner to the last runner.

"The team will look very different without four-time all-state runner Erika Alpeter out front," coach Don Seymour said. "I believe our team will be much closer as a pack. Look for our team time difference to be under 60 seconds and hopefully closer to 30 seconds."

Senior Linley Mescher and junior Shannon Kelleher lead the team. Both earned all-OCC-Ohio honors last season and Mescher is a three-time letterwinner. Kelleher is in her second year on the varsity. They were the Nos. 2 and 3 runners last season. As Alpeter finished as the regional runner-up (18:41) to Claire Durkin (17:38) of Kilbourne, Mescher was 49th (20:29) and Kelleher was 66th (20:51) among the 121 competitors.

The Panthers scored 218 points in the regional meet to finish ninth behind champion Mason (111). In the district meet Darby was third (85) behind Coffman (38) and UA (68).

At the league meet last year, the Panthers won their third consecutive title, totaling 19 points as Gahanna (48) was second.

Also returning are senior Katie Clark, junior Emily Young and sophomores Taylor Baldridge, Becca Nikolas and Mariah Sasson. Baldridge also competed in the postseason last year.

New to the team are sophomores Maddie McDonald and Alish Mackintosh and freshmen Emily Knife, Dawnyae Simkins and Jodi Mescher.

"Coming off three OCC titles in a row the team has high expectations to continue," Seymour said. "We know that with the level of the new OCC alignment, it is going to be very hard to defend our title. I believe the top three teams in our region -- UA, Davidson, and Coffman -- should compete for the title."

At a glance

Coach: Boys -- Jon Agriesti, fifth season; Girls -- Don Seymour, eighth season

Next meet: Boys -- Sept. 6 at McGowan Invitational at Watkins Memorial; Girls -- Saturday at Greenville Treaty City Invitational

Key runners: Boys -- Cody Embree, Matthew Hopke and Jay McKenna; Girls -- Shannon Kelleher and Linley Mescher