Licking Valley High School cross country coach Don Mealick returns four of the five runners from the boys team who scored at last year's Division II, district 1 meet.

Licking Valley High School cross country coach Don Mealick returns four of the five runners from the boys team who scored at last year's Division II, district 1 meet.

He still would prefer to withhold judgment on this season's team until a few internal things are worked out.

"Well, let's just say we're going through some issues," said Mealick, whose Panthers compete in the McGowan Invitational on Saturday at Watkins Memorial, also the site of the district meet. "But eventually I think this team will do pretty well, too."

Front-runners Nathan Vaughn and Jared Snider are back to anchor a lineup also returning juniors Ethan Osborn and Cris Nester.

Vaughn, a senior, was fifth (17 minutes, 7 seconds) at the MSL-Ohio Division meet, giving the team a top-five finisher for a second consecutive season after Jon Duck was runner-up as a senior in 2006. Vaughn made first-team all-district (seventh, 17:15) and both Snider (ninth, 17:27) and Osborne (14th, 17:32) earned second-team.

Despite graduating four of the top five runners after the 2006 season, the Panthers restocked and qualified for last year's regional meet, where they placed 15th (374 points) behind champion Tipp City Tippecanoe (71). They finished fourth (95) at the district meet won by DeSales (49) and third (81) at the league meet behind Bexley (35) and Granville (57).

"Nathan has picked up almost right where he left off (17:29 to finish fifth Aug. 23 in the opening Newark Catholic Invitational)," Mealick said. "He's done a lot of training on his own and is part of a nice core group. We've added some freshmen (Norm Gutridge, Zach Roberts, Zane Mealick) and a sophomore (Austin Carreins) we're hoping will help fill the gaps."

In the Canal Winchester Invitational last Wednesday, Vaughn was fourth in 17:01.

The girls team has no seniors but does feature three third-year runners in juniors Aubrey Biller, Mariyah Lowe and Chelsea Mealick, whose experience should translate to improved scoring.

Ashley Smith, a sophomore who ran several events last spring in track and field, also returns for the Panthers, who were fifth (163) at last year's MSL-Ohio meet won by Division III state-qualifying Newark Catholic (31) and eighth (239) at the Division II, district 1 meet won by Hartley (56). Smith is running No. 1 early.

Three newcomers, including sophomore Danielle Thompson, round out the team. The others are junior Jessica Montgomery and freshman Ibesha Freeman. Coach Mealick said Thompson was impressive in her debut at the Bryn Du Mansion in Granville, known as a slow course.

"Our girls are training very hard," he said. "Hopefully, we'll be where we need to be by the league race (on Oct. 11). The problem is our league is as tough as going to the district meet."