The return of senior Abiel Kiflu and junior Nahom Hailu has the Whitehall-Yearling High School boys cross country team anticipating another strong postseason run.
Last season, Kiflu qualified for the Division II state meet and finished 65th (17 minutes, 13.17 seconds) of 146 runners at National Trail Raceway.
Both runners competed in the regional meet at Pickerington North, with Kiflu earning his state-qualifying berth by finishing 16th (17:30.15) of 129 runners. The top four teams and individuals not on a qualifying team who finished in the top 16 advanced to state.
Hailu was 58th (18:38.42) at regional.
Both were first-year runners last season, and second-year coach Robert Taylor believes both will build on those performances.
"Last year, I could tell that they had talent. Did I think states? Not really," Taylor said. "That was pretty incredible. I thought they were going to be very competitive and as the season kept going they kept growing and I started to get a little more optimistic as it went along."
The Rams displayed their early season progress when they played host Aug. 25 to the 27th annual Whitehall Invitational at Whitehall Community Park. The boys team scored 28 points to finish first ahead of runner-up Bexley (29).
Bexley (15) won the girls race.
"This is a nice way to start the season," Taylor said. "It's at home. All the rest are bus rides and that's going to invitationals, so it's kind of nice to start out at home and ease into the season."
Taylor expects seniors Samson Edessa, Keith Lees and junior Anthony Spaulding to contend for the third through fifth positions.
Other runners are seniors Josh Delgadillo, Ramon Weldemicael and Noah Young, juniors Ashden Gibson, Chanse-James McDuffie and Jiawen Zhen and freshman Ana Abduljelil.
Kiflu and Lees are captains.
"We are going to be a much stronger team this year," Taylor said.
Last season, the Rams finished eighth (171) in the MSL-Ohio Division meet behind host Granville (23), Lakewood (79), Bexley (89), Columbus Academy (111), Heath (143), Licking Valley (144) and Newark Catholic (149). Hailu was 15th (17:50) and Kiflu was 19th (18:17).
"We're in one of the toughest cross country leagues in central Ohio," Taylor said. "Granville and Bexley have dominated the league for the last eight years."
Whitehall was eighth (204) in the 11-team district 1 meet at Watkins Memorial behind champion Granville (21). Kiflu was 11th (17:56.56) and Hailu was 12th (17:57.74) as both qualified for regional.
Juniors Sarah Euman, Ashley Hatfield and Hailey Reed should lead the girls team. Hatfield is the captain.
Junior Deisy Lopez is new to the team, which also includes freshmen Brenna Dorris and Jawuana Hammock.
"We're still recruiting girls and trying to get a few more runners," Taylor said.
Last season in the league meet, Whitehall was eighth (224) behind Granville (28), Bexley (63), Academy (85), Heath (105), Lakewood (150), Newark Catholic (153) and Licking Valley (160).
The Rams were 16th (510) in the 16-team district meet behind champion Granville (61).
Volleyball team expects to improve
The girls volleyball team returns nine players with varsity experience, and fourth-year coach Danielle Smith is optimistic the Rams can improve on their 5-18 overall record from last season.
Whitehall finished seventh (2-12) in the MSL-Ohio behind co-champions Granville (12-2) and Licking Valley (12-2).
The Rams lost to Amanda-Clearcreek 25-7, 25-15, 25-16 in the first round of the Division II district tournament.
"I would like these girls to go at least .500 and win in the first round of the (district) tournament," Smith said. "This group works really hard and they don't give up. They hate to lose, so they'll give it their all every game."
Senior outside hitters Delina Farnlacher and Melanie Gilmer return and are captains.
Also back are seniors Danielle Farnlacher (outside hitter), Amber Lucas (middle hitter) and Marissa Ware (middle hitter) and juniors Tierra Copley (setter), Andrea Seberig (libero), Rebekah Young (middle hitter) and Kayla Williams (setter/outside hitter).
Junior Madison Pharo (outside hitter) is new to the team.
Danielle and Delina Farnlacher are twins.
"We have a good group of girls," Smith said. "I've actually been with (the seniors) since they were in seventh grade because in Whitehall I started as the eighth-grade coach, so I've seen this group since they were seventh-graders. They work hard."
Whitehall must replace middle-hitter Kayla Persinger, a 2012 graduate who was first-team all-league the past two seasons.
The Rams opened Aug. 27 against Hamilton Township and began league play Aug. 28 against Academy.
Whitehall will play its home matches at Rosemore Middle School because of the renovation project at the high school.
Football team opens with win
The football team won its first game under first-year coach Jake Kuhner, defeating Central Crossing 40-7 on Aug. 24 at Bexley.
"The only thing that I wish is that the seven was a zero, but that's about the only thing I can say," Kuhner said. "We have to clean up on special teams, too. We made a couple mistakes defensively and offensively. They are things we can fix, but the kids played tough."
Junior quarterback Cody Koons rushed for 106 yards and two touchdowns and junior tailback B.J. Upchurch added 98 yards and two scores.
The Rams visit Division IV Bloom-Carroll on Friday, Aug. 31.
The Bulldogs opened with a 17-16 loss to Liberty Union on Aug. 24.
Last season, Bloom-Carroll was 2-8 overall.
"Bloom-Carroll is under new management this year with coach (Phil) Mauro," Kuhner said.
"He did a heck of a job turning Canal Winchester's program around. I'm expecting to face a very disciplined team. They run a lot of sprint out. They like rolling their quarterback (Kelly Milliser) out. The big thing is containing the quarterback."