Days before the start of the season, Upper Arlington High School cross country coach Latisha Wilder chuckled when reminded her girls team is tied for seventh in the Ohio Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches' preseason poll.
"I saw that, but at least among the team, there hasn't been much discussion of it," said Wilder, who coached the Golden Bears' boys team last year and is in her first season coaching the girls squad, having replaced now-retired Dale Hartney. "They're laying back and waiting to see what they can do this season. They're not ones to dwell on what others expect us to do."
UA has returned its top seven runners from last season -- when it won the 10-team Division I, district 3 title, was regional runner-up and placed 13th at state -- in seniors Sarah Heuerman, Dorrian Jaffe and Karla Jeggle, juniors Megan Brewer, Kristen Seely and Erin Simko and sophomore Ann Heuerman.
Jaffe and Ann Heuerman alternated as UA's No. 1 runner last season, with Heuerman leading the Bears at state at National Trail Raceway by placing 45th (18 minutes, 59.05 seconds) of 150 runners, followed by Jaffe (67th, 19:11.17).
UA won its first three meets and seven of the eight regular-season meets in which it competed last year. Jaffe led the Bears at regional at Pickerington North, placing fourth (19:04.13) of 118 runners, and Heuerman led the way at district at Watkins Memorial, placing was sixth (19:39.43) of 80 runners.
UA picked up where it left off last season in its opening meet, as it scored 33 points to win the 11-team Mount Vernon Kiwanis Club Invitational on Aug. 24, finishing comfortably ahead of runner-up Gahanna (64).
Ann Heuerman won the meet in 19:40.6, as the Bears had five runners finish in the top 12.
Jaffe placed fourth (19:54.3), followed by Brewer (sixth, 20:20), Jeggle (10th, 20:49.5) and freshman Elise Barbour (12th, 21:02.6).
Also expected to contribute this season are freshmen Elise Barbour and Meredith Caswell.
UA received 82 points in the OATCCC preseason poll, tying Brunswick for the most votes. Two of the Bears' OCC-Central Division foes, Dublin Coffman and Hilliard Davidson, were ranked fourth and fifth, respectively.
Hartney had been the boys coach since 1977 and had coached the girls team since 1985.
"I'm excited and open to being surprised and happy," Wilder said. "I love that we have the depth we do, and the girls are competitive with each other. I want them to race with each other. That doesn't bother me at all. We're getting our first taste of what is to come."
Hamilton among top runners for boys team
Wilder is hoping the younger runners on the boys cross country team have the talent to put the program on the map this fall.
"I think we could have some surprises," Wilder said. "Recent history around here is that cross country has been dominated by the girls team, but I really expect the boys to do well this season. We have some experienced boys and some younger boys coming up. I've been working with them to set some specific goals for throughout the season."
Sophomore Ian Hamilton and juniors Nar Wang and Payton Warner entered the season trying to establish their spots in the team's top three. Those spots mostly were filled last year by Hamilton and 2013 graduates Nathan Perry and Stewart Silver, but Perry missed the second half of the season because of an ankle injury.
Last season, UA qualified for the Division I regional meet at Pickerington North for the first time since 2009. The Bears are seeking their first state qualifier since 2011 graduate Brendan Long placed 51st (16:46) in 2010.
Others expected to contribute this season include seniors Alex Griffin, Steven Pidcock and Lucas Sencio, sophomore Nicholas Gill and freshmen Andrew Harper and Trent Popovich.
Sencio missed last season because of an injury.
Hamilton paced UA in its opening meet, placing 32nd (17:52.2) in the 17-team Mount Vernon Kiwanis Club Invitational on Aug. 24 as the Bears finished seventh (199) behind champion Dublin Jerome (27).
Warner (36th, 18:02.3) was next for the Bears, followed by Sencio (41st, 18:10.8), Harper (48th, 18:25.1), Wang (55th, 18:30.8) and Popovich (56th, 18:31.2).
"In my head, I am seeing the top five guys who will cross the finish line first, then who could cross after that," Wilder said. "There's a ton of potential with these guys. Nick, in particular, figured in as a freshman last year. If I could hone in on his focus and work with him to improve it, I think he could have a great season, too."