One year after taking 15th in its district, there is plenty of optimism on the Westerville South High School boys cross country team.

One year after taking 15th in its district, there is plenty of optimism on the Westerville South High School boys cross country team.

In fact, third-year coach Jimmy Gaul believes he has five runners capable of breaking 18 minutes, leaving the Wildcats with hopes of advancing to the Division I regional.

"There's nothing better than when you're team does a great job and you're a part of it," junior Hasso Opitz said. "(Advancing to the regional) would mean the world to us. I'd be so happy."

"We've always had a few strong individuals at the front of the pack, but we haven't had a strong five guys who could finish in the front half of (invitationals)," Gaul added. "This year we've got five or six guys who can step in and do some damage come the end of the season."

Last year, South was fifth (122 points) in the six-team OCC-Cardinal Division meet behind champion Dublin Jerome (43) before totaling 345 points at the 16-team district 2 race as Hilliard Davidson (45) won. At district, Opitz (49th, 17:28.45) led South, followed by graduate Matt Gauen (63rd, 17:48.9), sophomore Adam Kendrick (68th, 17:54.03), senior Chris Lawson (84th, 18:18.4), sophomore Benson Jung (86th, 18:22.08), graduate Mark Thomson (108th, 19:18.34) and senior Nick Coombs (108th, 20:09.18).

Gaul believes Opitz could be South's first runner in six years to break the 17-minute mark

"He's the best athlete on the team," Gaul said. "For sure he should be in the mix for a regional qualification, and I think he's got the talent, ability and competitive nature to put himself in the mix for state."

Kendrick likely is the team's second-best runner, though he is coming off an injury which sidelined him until the middle of last week.

Sophomore Adam Crum ran 18:13 in the Pickerington Classic last Saturday at Pickerington North to place eighth in the Tiger Division, and should be with Kendrick and Opitz at the front of the field.

Jung and Lawson round out the top five, with senior Matt Shultz, juniors Stephen Sheneman and Logan Pfeffer and freshman Mitchell Gerhart completing the expected lineup.

"We should have a really good pack of five guys," Opitz said. "Last year we had three top guys and the rest in the 19s. You can't have that if you want to get to regional or state."

•The girls team last year finished last (132) of six teams in the OCC-Cardinal meet behind champion Worthington Kilbourne (46), then was 11th (281) in Division I, district 1 as Dublin Coffman (38) won.

The top three runners from the end of last season -- junior Anna Schiffbauer (34th at district, 21:08.08), senior Tess Hoogeveen (46th, 21:46.38) and sophomore Elizabeth Markle (52nd, 21:53.3) -- are back.

Hoogeveen battled through injuries as a junior, but Gaul said he expects her to be in front of the team's pack all season

"She was a lot more relaxed this summer," he said. "She's real confident and focused."

Seniors Sara Bace and Nikki Sullivan should be among the scoring runners each race, with junior Leah Coleman and freshman Rachel Kreider battling for the fifth spot.

At a glance

•Coach: Boys -- Jimmy Gaul, third season; Girls -- Gaul, first season

•Next meet: Saturday at Westerville Classic at Westerville North

•Key runners: Boys -- Adam Crum, Adam Kendrick and Hasso Opitz; Girls -- Sara Bace, Tess Hoogeveen and Anna Schiffbauer