Improvements made over the past three months helped the Watterson High School boys cross country team put together one of the best seasons in program history.

The Eagles entered the season with four key returnees, but two of their top seven runners began competing within the last 15 months and two other runners were freshmen.

That didn't stop Watterson from reaching the state meet as a team for the first time since 1981. The Eagles totaled 414 points to finish 18th of 20 teams in the Division II race Nov. 4 at National Trail Raceway, behind champion Lexington (97).

Senior Nick Kuraly placed 24th of 180 runners in 16 minutes, 31.7 seconds to earn all-state honors.

"We were ranked 19th going into state and we finished 18th, and Nick was all-state and 9 seconds away from being on the podium," coach Matt McGowan said. "My No. 5 runner never ran until this year and my No. 2 runner didn't start running until his junior year. My top six are seniors. There was not one person at our school that thought we were going to qualify."

Kuraly won the CCL title (16:57.43) on Oct. 14 at Otterbein University, was runner-up in the district 1 meet (16:28.15) on Oct. 21 at Watkins Memorial and placed 12th (16:48.67) at regional Oct. 28 at Pickerington North.

"I'm happy," Kuraly said. "(State) was a fast race. It was competitive. It's always nice to be up there with those guys. I wanted to try to contend for that top 20, but I'm happy with it."

Also competing at state were seniors Shane Merklin (113th, 17:31.8), Matthew Hartel (126th, 17:44.1), Patrick Monnin (159th, 18:26.8), Danny Callaghan (160th, 18:28) and Matthew Lamb (165th, 18:42.4) and freshman Will Garey (175th, 19:28.2).

"It was a good experience," Kuraly said. "We were (Division I) last year and we qualified as a team in Division II this year. It's quite the event. There's a difference from Division I, but when you get to this level, it's competitive either way."

The Eagles were runners-up (54) in the CCL meet, behind St. Charles (24) and ahead of DeSales (78), Hartley (89) and Ready (136).

Watterson finished third (64) of 10 teams at district behind Buckeye Valley (28) and Jonathan Alder (48) and sixth (274) in the 22-team regional behind champion Thornville Sheridan (58) as the top seven advanced to state.

Freshman Charlie Nowinski was the Eagles' No. 7 runner at the CCL meet but Garey was the team's seventh finisher at district, regional and state.

"It's a developing process," McGowan said. "I try to help them develop a love for the sport so they'll continue to run for the rest of their lives."

Most of girls runners eligible to return

The girls cross country team is losing just one of its postseason competitors in senior Sarah O'Brien, who finished 83rd (23:13.55) in the Division I, district 2 meet Oct. 21 at Watkins Memorial.

The Eagles placed third in the CCL meet (52) behind DeSales (37) and Hartley (45) and ahead of Columbus School for Girls (90) and Ready (144) and finished 11th (264) in the 16-team district meet behind champion Granville (43) as the top six teams and top 24 runners qualified for regional.

Junior Emily Latshaw placed third in the CCL meet (21:19.49) and 40th (21:09.02) at district.

The Eagles' next three runners at district were freshmen Brooklyn Brush (42nd, 21:11.66), Danielle Grim (48th, 21:24.33) and Emily Vais (66th, 22:11.48). They were followed by sophomores Bridget Dougherty (70th, 22:20.52) and Sarah Heink (81st, 23:07.02).

Others in the program included senior Kelsi Connors and juniors Grace Elliott and Elizabeth Rabold.

Football team hopes to rebound in 2018

The football team completed its first season under coach Brian Kennedy with a 2-8 record that included a 1-2 mark in the CCL.

Watterson finished third in the league, behind Hartley (3-0) and DeSales (2-1) and ahead of St. Charles (0-3).

The Eagles are losing 37 players to graduation, including their top nine leaders in tackles, their leading receiver, their top two rushers, key offensive linemen such as Kyle Simmonds and quarterback Cole Andrews.

"We're trying to build the program back up and I thought (the seniors) did a good job as leaders and tried to do things the right way," Kennedy said. "It was not the number of wins we wanted, but there were a lot of positive things that happened this year."

The biggest bright spot among the eligible returnees was junior Antonio Auddino (WR/DB), who entered the season as a backup but was second on the team in receptions with 31.

Kennedy also is hopeful about the potential of two quarterbacks eligible to return in junior Grant Horvath and sophomore Jacob Hoying. Horvath threw for 90 yards in limited action.

Juniors Drew Davis (OL/DL) and Grant Holsinger (OL) also were key players.

Others eligible to return include juniors Nathan Best (DB), Nick Jannot (WR/DB) and Matthew Rhomberg (LB) and sophomore Mason Graney (TE/DL). Jannot had 14 receptions for 116 yards and one touchdown.

Horvath also saw action at linebacker.

Watterson opened Aug. 25 with a 41-6 win over Whitehall, which went on to make the Division II playoffs, but lost its next six games, including a 37-34 two-overtime loss at Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit on Sept. 8. The Eagles beat St. Charles 31-7 on Oct. 13 before losing to Dublin Jerome 28-27 on Oct. 20 and DeSales 41-7 on Oct. 27.

Seven of the teams on the Eagles' schedule made the playoffs, and that doesn't include DeSales, which went 6-4.

Andrews completed 162 of 278 passes for 1,725 yards with nine touchdowns.

Senior Nick DePalma (RB) rushed for a team-best 433 yards and three touchdowns and senior Kyle Naderhoff (RB/LB) had 60 yards rushing and five touchdowns. Naderhoff also led the team in tackles with 52.5, while senior Cort Marbaugh had 42.5 tackles and eight pass breakups.

Seniors Cameron Headlee (LB/RB) and Casey Calhoun (DB/WR) also were key players on both sides of the ball.

Senior Nate Meyer (WR/DB) had 41 catches for 573 yards and three touchdowns and senior Charlie Spencer (TE/DL) had 27 receptions for 386 yards and three scores.

Senior kicker Kevin Laming made six of 11 field-goal attempts and Calhoun led the team in kickoff return and punt return yardage.

Boys soccer team losing 12 seniors

After going 9-7-3 last season, the boys soccer team finished 9-7-1 overall this fall.

Watterson placed third in the CCL at 2-2, behind DeSales (4-0) and St. Charles (3-1) and ahead of Hartley (1-3) and Ready (0-4).

The sixth-seeded Eagles opened the Division II district tournament with a 10-0 win over 22nd-seeded Eastmoor Academy on Oct. 17 at home before losing to 10th-seeded Independence 3-0 in the second round Oct. 21 at home.

"There were some ups and downs so I would have liked to have seen a little more consistency, but my team was very cohesive this season," coach Ed Mikula said.

Watterson defeated Rocky River, which finished 14-3-1, 3-2 on Sept. 16 and won six of its final 10 games.

The Eagles are losing 12 seniors, including forwards Gilberto Quintero and Liam Aman, who scored 12 and seven goals, respectively. Other key seniors included D.J. Brown (midfielder), Kevin Laming (defender) and Bryant Pratt (goalie).

There are 12 juniors in the program as well.

Juniors Justin Frank (midfielder), Peter Ganz (forward), J.R. Goodman (midfielder), Kyle Hanley (midfielder), Max Hansell (forward), Jack Nyhus (defender) and Drew Pardi (midfielder/defender) and sophomores Bobby Barklay (forward), Jonah Fortkamp (defender), Max Graham (defender) and Grant Twombly (forward) should be among the key returnees. Freshman Michael Segreto is among the candidates to take over in goal next season.

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek