Westerville North High School boys cross country coach Dave Weaner has contemplated retirement each of the past two seasons, only to be lured back by love of the sport and the continued emergence of promising runners.
Last year, Division I signees Nick Chatel (Arizona State), Jacob Dumford (Notre Dame) and Kent Ford (Miami University) guided the Warriors to district and regional championships and a fourth-place finish in the Division I state meet.
This year, with the program down to 24 runners from 52 and a promising group of underclassmen poised to compete, Weaner expects his 11th season to feature reloading and rebuilding.
"That class of '13 was unquestionably special. There were a lot of hugs and tears when they left," said Weaner, who has coached in North's program since 1978, retired this past spring from teaching and now is serving as a long-term substitute science teacher at North. "When you're fourth in the state and tops in central Ohio, there are all sorts of bull's-eyes on you. We're reloading, but we're rebuilding. It could be an interesting year."
Leading returnees for the Warriors, who began their season Aug. 24 with a fourth-place finish in the Panther Division of the Pickerington Classic at Pickerington North, include seniors Nick Horton and Evan Larrick, junior Trevor Dilley and sophomore Matt Parkhurst. Larrick, who has participated in three consecutive state meets and was 110th last year after placing 119th as a sophomore, is expected to be in the top two with Horton.
Parkhurst, the lone freshman to compete for North at state last year, recorded a personal-best time of 16 minutes, 27 seconds there and led the Warriors at Pickerington North by finishing 13th (17:00.3). Horton was 17th (17:14.1) and Dilley was 19th (17:16.6) as North scored 104 points behind champion Dublin Coffman (77).
Last year at state, Dumford was second in 15:17.61, eight seconds behind Sam Wharton of Tipp City Tippecanoe. Ford was fifth in 15:29.11.
Others whom Weaner expects to contribute include seniors Jake Horton and Andrew Kenreigh, juniors Evan Crew, Alex Cummings, Daniel Mallett, Zach McConaghy, Sam Payne and Kevin Vestal and sophomores George Matthews, Dylan McKay, Bryan Peck, Hayden Schultz, Adam Sherrard and Calvin Vordum-Esche.
Weaner did not rule out promoting any of six freshmen to varsity. "The question is, will the kids buckle down and do what it takes?" he said. "These seniors are capable of maintaining good focus for the underclassmen. Now, the guys have to take the bull by the horns."
Subpar finishes motivate Central
Central coach Jason Loughman said his team's seventh-place finishes in both the OCC-Cardinal Division and district 3 meets last year served as motivators throughout the offseason.
"We were near the bottom of the conference, and even though our league is pretty strong, that didn't make our guys feel any better about that," said Loughman, whose team opened Aug. 24 in the Mount Vernon Kiwanis Invitational. "The guys took that finish to heart and it's kind of motivated them. A lot of their focus in the offseason has involved changing the culture and attitude back to what it's usually been around here."
No Warhawks advanced to regional last year.
Central's primary loss to graduation was Brandon Shaw, who split the top spot last year with senior Dustin Edens. Other 2013 graduates in the top five were Craig Martin and Bernie Skubak.
Edens and classmates Conor Hollern and Joel Schmelzer are returning letterwinners. Other seniors include Chris Marth, Holden Ruegger and Bobby Zimmerer.
Other runners include juniors Johnny Derringer, Cameron George, A.J. Johnson, Grant Schwartz and Sean Walston, sophomore Noah Corbett and freshmen Mitchell McClain and Derrick Rymers.
Edens was 40th (18:10.5) at Mount Vernon, leading Central to 260 points and 10th-place (260) behind champion Dublin Jerome (27) as 11 teams scored. Johnson was 49th (18:25.8), Schmelzer was 66th (18:38.4) and Hollern 68th (18:45.5).
"A.J.'s usually been that second man behind Dustin, and Joel is behind them in the third. The rest of them are all within 30 seconds of each other over the course of two to three miles," Loughman said. "Maybe right now we don't have a guy who will be a front-runner in a race with the exception of Dustin Edens. But there are 10 to 12 guys in the running to be in our top seven. Probably no one will feel secure with their spot in the lineup, and that's how I like it."
Smith back to lead Wildcats
South coach Jimmy Gaul prefers to use August as a training month and begin racing by the beginning of September, but he wasn't about to argue with his runners' performances in the OHSAA Preseason Invitational on Aug. 17 at National Trail Raceway.
Coming off a hip flexor that had bothered him since last season, junior Greg Smith was 29th (17:24.82) and South finished 18th (433) behind champion Mason (68) as 24 teams scored. Smith, the Wildcats' top runner most of the past two seasons, hadn't been cleared to run until late July.
"It was a challenging race, too, run in the middle of the afternoon when it was fairly hot," Gaul said. "But Greg felt healthy. He felt good. His talent speaks for itself. He was ninth in our meat grinder of a conference last year. Him feeling good is good for the team."
Accompanying Smith in the top six will be senior Eli Less -- a fourth-year varsity runner -- as well junior Nick Vermaaten, senior Aaron Sens and juniors Reed Watkins and Derek Wei. Gaul expects sophomores Robert Forbus, Ben Powell and Peter Westfall to contribute, as well as freshmen Kiarash Ahmadpour and C.J. Johnson.
"This is the biggest team we've ever had," said Gaul, whose program has 38 runners. "And some of the guys are already 40 seconds faster than they were in their debuts last year. They trained hard all summer and we're seeing the payoff."