The Olentangy Liberty High School girls cross country team returns its only Division I state qualifier from a year ago in junior Claire Wiles and three regional competitors in juniors Autumn Lowder and Mhairi Johnston and sophomore Claire Linn.
Last year in her first state appearance, Wiles finished 53rd (19 minutes, 3.22 seconds) of 150 runners at National Trail Raceway.
She advanced to state by placing 13th (19:22.83) of 118 runners in the regional meet at Pickerington North. Linn finished 42nd (20:23.39), with Lowder (21:13.93) and Johnston (21:39.32) finishing 79th and 98th, respectively.
Liberty finished eighth (218 points) in the 16-team regional meet behind champion Hilliard Davidson (50). Also last year, the Patriots finished fourth (102) in the OCC-Central Division behind champion Dublin Coffman (43) and placed fifth (111) in the district 2 meet at Watkins Memorial behind champion Coffman (31).
"Cross country isn't just a sport where you go out and run 3.1 miles on a Saturday. It's a sport where you build lasting friendships, achieve goals and practice self-discipline," first-year coach Kelly Fogle said. "You'll go through some of the most demanding times of your life during a race, yet everyone on the team is there to support you."
Liberty opened Aug. 24, winning (64) the seven-team Panther Division of the Pickerington Classic at Pickerington North ahead of runner-up Westerville North (71).
Wiles finished second (19:30.7), followed by Linn (fifth, 20:41.5), junior Trinity Wiles (16th, 21:48.4), Lowder (18th, 21:57.9), sophomore Shannon Kelly (23rd, 22:07.7), senior Alayna Flannery (24th, 22:16.2) and senior Jessica Martz (25th, 22:16.4).
Liberty has 19 seniors, including Lydia Edwards, Allie Merola, Colette Naples, Ebony Nelson, Lauren Noel and Lauren Ramsey.
"We have 77 girls out this year," Fogle said. "I consider all of the team important because it takes every one of their personalities and their drives to make our team what it is."
Freshmen making impact for Braves
Olentangy returns five runners who competed in the 10-team Division I, district 3 meet last year at Watkins Memorial in sophomore Kendall Supinger (33rd, 21:18.67), sophomore Sarah Speck (40th, 21:36.29), junior Sara Pocius (42nd, 21:52.58), senior Mackenzie Freeman (47th, 21:58.46) and sophomore Emma Cook (56th, 22:25.43).
The Braves finished ninth (203) at district behind champion Upper Arlington (49) and did not have any regional qualifiers.
Four freshmen helped Olentangy finish fifth (141) in the 11-team Mount Vernon Kiwanis Club Invitational on Aug. 24 at Foundation Park behind champion UA (33).
Freshman Katie King led the Braves, finishing 22nd (21:48.9). Freshman Ashton Benson (25th, 22:01.2) was next, followed by freshman Ireland Fallona (29th, 22:12.9), Speck (31st, 22:14.4), freshman Camryn Stobart (34th, 22:18.3), junior Lauren Lapid (35th, 22:18.7) and junior Logan Augustine (38th, 22:20).
"We have 53 runners this year, which is a record number for our program," said coach Dwight Dewese said. "Our middle school coaches -- Ken Whelan at Shanahan and Katie Raiff at Berkshire -- have done a great job of creating interest in the sport. I would expect our numbers to continue to grow over the next several years."
Others expected to be key contributors this season are sophomore Carsyn Stobart and freshman Chloe Murdock, Dewese said.
Last season, Olentangy finished third (82) in the OCC-Capital meet behind New Albany (33) and Orange (65).
"The number of runners we have is one of our strengths," Dewese said. "That helps provide some depth and creates a great competitive atmosphere at practice to be in the top seven runners."
Orange returns four regional competitors
Orange returns four runners who competed in the Division I regional meet last season in junior Anna Dove and sophomores Madison Clarkson, Hannah Dieker and Skylar Tucker.
Tucker was the Pioneers' highest regional finisher among the returnees, having placed 73rd (21:05.44). Clarkson (111th, 22:18.05) was next, followed by Dove (114th, 22:46.77) and Dieker (117th, 23:00.77).
The Pioneers finished 14th (308) at regional.
Also last season, Orange placed second in the OCC-Capital meet and sixth (176) in the district 3 meet.
Orange opened Aug. 24 by finishing eighth (228) in the Mount Vernon Kiwanis Club Invitational.
Dove (23rd, 21:53.6) led the Pioneers, followed by Tucker (49th, 22:53.2), Dieker (55th, 23:04.2), Clarkson (56th, 23:05.4), sophomore Lindsey Brandt (61st, 23:17.9), senior Allison Priest (70th, 23:47.4) and senior Ann Howard (77th, 24:18.4).
"We have 32 this season, which is a strong number," first-year coach Jen Sosa said. "The girls have worked hard during conditioning and going into the beginning weeks of the season. They are motivated, enthusiastic and supportive of each other on and off the course."
Others vying for an opportunity to compete in meets this season include seniors Ellen Bardash, Maggie Debolt, Michelle Deitrick, Hannah Durst, Sarah Juttner, Collette Niemiec, Lauren Schwenker and Adie Tyler and junior Madison Niles.
"We have a great group of dedicated girls and a large group of seniors leading our team," Sosa said. "We may not be as large of a team as others in the district, but the girls have more than made up for that with their commitment to the sport and to their team."