According to the Division I state cross country poll released three days before the state meet, the Olentangy Liberty High School girls team was ranked fifth behind a list of teams that included Granville at No. 2 and Hilliard Davidson, which was tied for third.
Senior Emma Bower kept that in mind when she and her teammates hit the trail Nov. 4 at National Trail Raceway.
"We were ranked in the top five, but I thought we could do better than that," Bower said. "Doing well as a team was pretty awesome."
The Patriots scored 172 points to earn a third-place finish behind Centerville (122) and Cincinnati Ursuline Academy (137) in the 20-team meet as Davidson took sixth (203) and Granville was eighth (222).
The top of Liberty's lineup made the difference.
Junior Gracie Sprankle, who was central Ohio's top runner all season, finished fourth in 17 minutes, 35.5 seconds and Bower placed ninth (18:05.7) as both earned spots on the awards podium.
"Getting third is tough because we were shooting for second, but I thought everybody ran well," coach Darrell Dewese said.
The only runners to place ahead of Sprankle were Troy's Morgan Gigandet (17:30.9), Solon's Olivia Howell (17:32.4) and Beavercreek's Taylor Ewert (17:35.1).
It's possible that Sprankle could have finished even higher, but she ran all but the first 800 meters of the race without her right shoe.
"Someone flat-tired me," she said. "The rocks hurt, but I thought of it as kind of a distraction from the rest of the pain. I just thought, 'Keep running.' When I lost it, it was a little bit of adversity and I thought it would be awesome if I could overcome it. I'm pretty satisfied."
Last season at state, Sprankle finished 14th and Bower was 21st as the Patriots were ninth. Bower took third and Sprankle 11th as the Patriots earned the runner-up trophy in 2015, and Bower was 14th in 2014 as Liberty placed sixth.
In addition to Bower, senior Sarah Colvin competed at state in each of her four prep seasons.
Sophomore Linnea Kunesh was the Patriots' No. 3 runner Nov. 4, placing 38th (18:52.4), followed by freshmen Audrey Piero (82nd, 19:37.0) and Lauren Woodruff (99th, 19:56.1), senior Addison French (129th, 20:22.8) and Colvin (156th, 21:04.1).
"I was definitely hoping to (get on the) podium for sure because I didn't make that last year, and definitely top 20 was what I wanted," Bower said. "I'm glad I got to come to state and run with my buddy (Sprankle) for the last time."
Liberty scored 36 points to win the OCC-Buckeye Division meet ahead of Orange (56), Olentangy (62), Westerville Central (83), Westerville North (134) and Westerville South (174) on Oct. 14 at Hilliard Darby. It then won the 11-team district 1 race (42) on Oct. 21 at Watkins Memorial and was third at regional (90) behind Granville (63) and Davidson (81) on Oct. 28 at Pickerington North.
Other key runners included senior Anna Bower and sophomores Emma Shear and Lauren Buddie.
Girls soccer team heads back to state
With a 2-0 victory over Dublin Jerome on Nov. 4 at Dublin Scioto, the girls soccer team earned a second Division I state semifinal berth in three seasons.
The Patriots played Loveland on Nov. 7 at Centerville, with the winner to play Massillon Jackson or Perrysburg in the state championship game Friday, Nov. 10, at Mapfre Stadium at a time to be determined.
"(The) regular season was rough, so to come back and get this kind of momentum, it's a great feeling," senior midfielder Abby Jones said.
Liberty, which was 13-5-3 before playing Loveland, beat Darby 3-2 on Oct. 31 in a regional semifinal at Westerville Central. Abby Townsend, Emma Lindsey and Lyndsey Kijowski all scored.
Then against Jerome in the regional final, Madison Rapier scored 40 seconds into the second half of a scoreless game off a pass from Townsend and Jones took a pass from Townsend and scored with 29:42 remaining.
"We needed to finish our chances and needed to put it away," coach Kristen McMahon said. "They know what it's like to be (at state) and they're so excited. There's a lot of excitement to be back."
In 2015, Liberty lost to Love-land 3-1 in a state semifinal.
The Tigers were 20-1 after beating Springboro 1-0 in overtime Nov. 4 in a regional final.
Jackson was 17-2-2 and Perrysburg was 16-2-3 heading into their state semifinal Nov. 7.
Boys runners close season at state
After finishing 12th in the Division I state meet last season, the boys cross country team finished 13th (269) in this year's 20-team event Nov. 4 behind champion Hudson (73).
Sophomore Jack Humenay, who was the team's No. 4 runner at regional, was 61st in 16:33.3 to lead the way.
"We made up about 100 spots after the mile to finish with 269, so they really ran a great second half of the race, which is what we do," coach Jared Mills said. "Part of our culture is digging deep and working hard in the second half of races."
Junior Joseph Johnson III placed 71st (16:40.5), followed by senior Logan Boone (88th, 16:46.0), sophomore Nick Irelan (94th, 16:48.7), seniors Nicholas Anderson (108th, 17:00.8) and Bradley Raymond (128th, 17:10.6) and junior Adam Clark (161st, 17:40.0).
"Overall I think we were hoping to do better, but I think we're setting the tone for years to come," Boone said.
The Patriots, who were league runners-up last year, won the OCC-Buckeye title with 31 points Oct. 14 at Darby, ahead of Orange (46), South (84), Olentangy (103), Central (115) and North (172).
Then in the 16-team district 3 meet, Liberty won with 49 points. In the 16-team regional, the Patriots scored 121 to finish third behind Davidson (91) and Thomas Worthington (115).
Others eligible to return include sophomore Jacob Feldmaier and freshman Tanner Sutton.
"For these guys to run in back-to-back state meets, it says a lot about the culture," Mills said. "All of our seniors were great leaders and created a real positive culture. I'm going to miss those guys."
Boys soccer team to return strong nucleus
Although the boys soccer team is losing three first-team all-league players to graduation, coach Marc D'Auteuil believes his program will remain one of the area's best next season.
The Patriots went 14-2-2 overall and were Division I district runners-up.
Colin McCort (midfielder), Wesley Collins (center back) and Derek Rubadeux (defender) were first-team all-league as the Patriots went 4-0-1 to win the OCC-Buckeye ahead of Central (2-0-3), South (2-2-1), Olentangy (1-1-3), Orange (1-2-2) and North (0-5).
"We only had five seniors that started," D'Auteuil said. "It will be tough to lose (McCort) and (Collins)."
The Patriots were ranked first in the state poll for much of the state season and were seeded first for the district tournament. After beating 40th-seeded Whetstone 5-0 on Oct. 21 and 19th-seeded Orange 2-0 on Oct. 25 in a district semifinal, Liberty lost 3-2 in a shootout to sixth-seeded South on Oct. 28 in a district final at Jerome.
McCort is a Marshall recruit who finished with 16 goals and eight assists.
Sophomore defender Tyler Harris also was first-team all-league while sophomore defender Blake Collins, seniors Stephen Psyhogios (midfielder) and Jared Whitfield (forward) and junior midfielder Nathan Rothert were second team, sophomore Nathan Logozzo (defender) was special mention and senior goalkeeper John Harmoning was honorable mention.
Rothert finished with 11 goals.
Others eligible to return include junior midfielder/forward Ashvin Rajmahon and sophomore forward Ludwig Conrad. Sophomore Theren Handlon could take over at goalie next season.
"The tournament ended up not how we wanted it to, but getting back to where we were three years ago is kind of a testament to the seniors as a whole," D'Auteuil said.