When he was coach of the Thomas Worthington High School boys cross country team from 1998-2006, Andy Cox's runners used to camp in tents in his backyard the night before the first day of practice to show how eager they were to get going.

When he was coach of the Thomas Worthington High School boys cross country team from 1998-2006, Andy Cox's runners used to camp in tents in his backyard the night before the first day of practice to show how eager they were to get going.

He took over the girls team last year and assumed the campouts were a thing of the past. They weren't, though bad weather a year ago did cause a one-year hiatus.

But the evening of Aug. 4, Cox was pleased to look out his back window and see more than a dozen runners getting settled into their tents for the night.

"I wasn't sure if that was going to continue to happen once I moved over to coach the girls, but the girls wanted to show that they're just as eager and enthusiastic about cross country as the boys are," said Cox, whose team opened in the Pickerington North Classic last Saturday and will run in the Westerville Class on Saturday at Westerville North.

"It's nice because it shows the closeness of the teams. The fact that these kids want to practice right away is a sign that they're having fun and enjoying each other's company. Having that kind of chemistry and unity is very important."

Junior Kelsey McAlpine is back and will be the team's front-runner. Seniors Kayla Emrick, Tiffany Sias and Helen Smith, juniors Melissa Girgis and Claire Graupmann, sophomore Amber McAlpine and freshmen Annalee Hariland and Tara Murphy fill out the varsity roster.

"We're working to get six other girls to run a nice, fast pack behind Kelsey," Cox said.

Last year, the Cardinals went undefeated against central Ohio teams during regular season and were first (28 points) in the OCC-Central Division meet ahead of Pickerington North (66), Marysville (70), Central Crossing (92), Delaware (106) and Westerville Central (185).

Thomas will compete in the OCC-Central this season with Central Crossing, Dublin Coffman, Hilliard Darby, Hilliard Davidson, Upper Arlington, Westland and Worthington Kilbourne.

The Cardinals have won two consecutive OCC titles after not winning a championship the previous 11 years.

"Our OCC meet is going to be like a mini regional with the quality of teams we have," Cox said. "It will be more difficult to stay on top."

The Cardinals were first (62) in the 16-team Division I, district 2 meet ahead of runner-up Davidson (81), but finished seventh (160) in the regional behind state qualifiers Mason (111), Kings Mills Kings (118), Coffman (120) and Loveland (121).

"Our lack of experience had a big impact on the finish of last season," Cox said. "The girls are a lot hungrier this year after missing out on going to state, and that experience should aid us in preparation for being our best at the big meets."

•Competing for the boys team are seniors Matt Hariland, Kurt Lanno, Michael Majoros and Jose Martinez and juniors Tim Dignan, Max Friedlander, Dylan Metz and Madison Murphy.

"The guys were a little more dedicated and they put in a lot of miles in the offseason," coach Jeff Henderson said. "We're way ahead of where we were at this point last year. Our top five guys are within 30 seconds of each other and that's exciting."

The Cardinals were third (74) in the OCC-Central meet a year ago behind Pickerington North (27) and Central Crossing (72) and ahead of Delaware (86), Westerville Central (120) and Marysville (140). Thomas then finished ninth (213) in the 21-team Division I district 1 meet behind champion Reynoldsburg (67) as graduate Isaac Szana placed ninth (16 minutes, 25.04 seconds) to lead the way.

The top six teams and 24 individuals qualified to regional, and Szana was the only Cardinal to make the cut.

At regional, Szana was fourth (16:08) to qualify to state, where he finished 42nd (16:16.22).

"We weren't quite where we hoped to be at the end of last season, and the team as a whole knew it could have done much better," Henderson said. "We talked about our goals and the guys realized they need to do more if we're going to make it back to regional and state. I feel optimistic about our chances this year because the guys put in the work and their fitness level has gone through the roof."

Michael Majoros is one of four seniors on the boys cross country team, which will compete Saturday at the Westerville Classic.

At a glance

•Coach: Boys -- Jeff Henderson, second season; Girls -- Andy Cox, second season

•Next meet: Saturday at Westerville Classic at Westerville North

•Key runners: Boys -- Tim Dignan and Max Friedlander; Girls -- Claire Graupmann, Kelsey McAlpine and Tiffany Sias