New Albany High School boys cross country coach Chad Olinger doesn't have to coax his runners into getting along or spending time together.
"They're best friends," Olinger said of a group whose top five consists of juniors Zack Buck, Ben Iten, Brian Krugh, Dennis Maloney and Alex Quillin. "They train together. They eat together at lunch. They have fun together."
The Eagles also had no problems fulfilling Olinger's strategy for the season-opening Pickerington Classic on Aug. 24 at Pickerington North. He wanted them to run the first two miles together, then finish individually.
It seemed to pay off. Buck was seventh in 16 minutes, 49.9 seconds, followed by Iten (12th, 16:58.5), Maloney (15th, 17:03.3), Krugh (30th, 17:37.6) and Quillin (31st, 17:38.3) as the Eagles finished second (95 points) in the Panther Division behind Dublin Coffman (77) as 11 teams scored.
Despite losing four of his top seven runners from a year ago, when New Albany won five meets and finished 15th in the Division I state meet, Olinger thinks this team could be among the best in school history.
"The quality we have is as good as we've ever had," he said. "The potential we have is as good as our program has ever seen."
Buck and Maloney split time as the team's top runner in 2012, with Maloney placing a team-best 65th at state. Olinger thinks Iten, who has lost 30 pounds since last season thanks to a rigorous offseason program, could be key to the team's fortunes.
"He's a kid who last year (got his personal record) at about 18:05, and (Aug. 24) he ran (16:58.5)," Olinger said. "He's filled out. He's a man. He was our second guy (at Pickerington North) and that's only going to help us."
Other expected contributors include seniors Michael Colgan, Creighton Irwin and Chris Ryan, junior Jack Flaherty, sophomores Eyob Alemayehu and Chris Weineke and freshman Clark Patrick.
"There really isn't a pecking order yet," Olinger said. "A freshman could be our sixth guy. Freshman-wise and potential-wise, Clark could fill that sixth position. But Chris Ryan has championship experience. Six to 12, it's a tossup who will get on varsity. We'll run a strong seven when it matters."
Seniors leading girls cross country team
Seniors Eliza Matt, Catherine Ralston and Lexi Simpson return to pace the girls cross country team, which might not have two-time state meet participant Camilla Suarez for much of the season because of a hip injury.
Matt was fifth (20:35.5) in the Bengal Division at the Pickerington Classic, leading New Albany to a fourth-place finish (114) behind champion Thomas Worthington (62) as 13 teams scored.
Ralston was 24th (21:33.5), followed in 26th by sophomore Charlotte Matt (21:41.8). Simpson was 52nd (22:56.2).
"They're positioned right now to have huge seasons," said first-year coach Herb Gregory, who replaced Brian Olinger. "The first meet of the year was like any other first meet of the year. There are some things we did well, and some things we need to do better. All in all, it was a good first race.
"We've got some good talent. We're still figuring some things out."
Gregory was an assistant coach for the boys team the past three seasons after helping coach the girls from 2007-09.
Suarez, a junior, finished 103rd at state as a freshman and 50th last year after placing second in the OCC-Capital Division meet, fourth at district and 11th at regional. According to Gregory, Suarez has been nursing a hip injury since February.
"We're not sure what we'll get out of her this year," Gregory said. "I feel so bad for her. She's so frustrated."
Others expected to remain in the top eight include junior Becca Adams, sophomores Harper Loeb and Anna Weibel and freshmen Danelle Calero and Jessica Zaper.
"Right now, it's more like a reasonably clear-cut top four or five, then it's six through 12," Gregory said. "It's muddled at this point. We've identified 12 girls who are our varsity kids who for a while will train together and see how things pan out as we go through the season. We'll see who figures things out and who doesn't."