With a Division I state qualifier and the ninth-fastest runner in program history helping lead this year's team, Pickerington High School Central girls cross country coach Hunter Nichols hopes the Tigers can have their best season in two decades.
Seniors Lauren Marvin and Maddie Schmidt and sophomore Grace Osborn return for the Tigers, who finished third at both the OCC-Ohio Division and district meets and ninth at regional last season to fall short of their first state berth since 1996.
Marvin finished 56th at state in 2016, when her time of 18 minutes, 56 seconds put her ninth in program history, and 23rd at regional last year to fall short of a return trip. She was the Tigers' second runner in the season-opening Panther Classic on Aug. 25 at Pickerington North, placing 14th in the Bengal Division (21:01.22) to lead Central to 140 points and third place out of 27 teams, behind champion Olentangy Berlin (102).
"We have 16 total girls this year. We had 18 last year, but we'll make do. We have some good leaders to help us figure something out," said Nichols, who is in his seventh season. "(Marvin's) sophomore year was outstanding. Last year, she broke her foot and she was out the first half of the season and barely missed qualifying for state by a second. I think she's going to have a big year. Staying healthy will be the key."
Sophomore Grace Osborn was Central's top runner Aug. 25, finishing ninth in 20:50. Also scoring were Schmidt (25th, 21:47.32) and freshmen Emily Green (27th, 21:50.86) and Brenna Todd (66th, 23:07.59).
Nichols has particularly high hopes for Green, largely because of her growth during the preseason.
"She is really responding well to training," Nichols said. "Earlier, she'd take off hard and fall apart. Then she got that under control. She figured out a lot of things on her own. She's learning her role and how to progress. I quickly saw differences in her training runs. She was right there with Maddie (on Aug. 25)."
Other contributors will include seniors Sydney Hansen, Kiera Miller and Sarah Murdock, junior Amanda Dewey, sophomore Grace Vega and freshman Kat Moss.
Central scored 92 points in the OCC-Ohio meet last year to finish third behind champion Gahanna (26). The Tigers' only loss to graduation was Amber Hamelin, who is fourth-fastest all-time in team history (18:40) and the program's fastest runner since the district split in 2003.
Central continued its season Sept. 1 with the Asics Hot Summer Bash at Hilliard Davidson.
New faces emerging for boys runners
Freshman boys cross country runner Jailen Willis no sooner had finished third (16:58.2) in the Bengal Division of the Panther Classic than one of the Tigers' assistant coaches was letting perhaps the top runner in team history know about it.
"Jailen wants to break all of Matt's records, and that will be a challenge, but why not?" 15th-year coach Andy Fischer said, referring to 2018 graduate Matt Scrape, a three-time Division I state qualifier and team record holder (14:59.54) who now runs at Syracuse University. "Why not have lofty goals? Matt was the same way when he was a freshman."
Fischer hopes that kind of performance will help offset the temporary absence of three of the team's top runners. Senior Brady Johnson missed the Panther Classic because of an Achilles' tendon issue, and classmate Tyler Gunderson and junior Jonathan Taranto also were battling various injuries.
Johnson finished 40th at state last year, when Scrape finished third, and was 36th in 2016 when Central made its first state appearance as a team since 2002.
Senior Jacob Jobe was second (16:54.07) at the Panther Classic to lead Central to 96 points and second place of 24 teams behind Mount Gilead (25). Also scoring were sophomores Chase Balko (10th, 17:35.12), Jordan Robertson (31st, 18:19.88) and Jacob Brown (50th, 18:44.26).
Central ran in the Bengal Division instead of the Panther Division with OCC-Ohio rivals Gahanna and Pickerington North, among others, because of the injuries.
"I am sure (Johnson) has high goals for himself," Fischer said. "He is so hard on himself. He works himself hard. It stinks to be injured at any time, but it's better now than later. I keep preaching patience. Things tend to work out the way you expect them to if you can be patient and get to the finish line healthy."
Other runners will include seniors Evan Cohen and Brayden Harlor, junior Max Smart and freshmen Gavin Kelly and Drew Klipfer.
The Tigers finished third (67) in the OCC-Ohio meet last year behind champion North (36).
Golf teams seek strong league finishes
The boys and girls golf teams enter the fourth and final rounds of their respective OCC-Ohio tournaments Wednesday, Sept. 12, in the top half of the league standings.
Led by Blake Bennett's round of 74, the boys team finished second (323) in the third round Aug. 28 at Denison Golf Club behind Gahanna (320) and ahead of North (325), Grove City (329) and Lancaster (347). Reynoldsburg did not record a team score.
Also scoring for the Tigers were Jaden Thompson (81), Aidan Allen (82) and Trey Blalock (86).
Those performances allowed Central to solidify its hold on second place in the OCC-Ohio entering the final round at Turnberry, their home course. The Tigers are 12-3, behind Gahanna (15-0) and ahead of North (9-6), Grove City (9-6), Lancaster (3-12) and Reynoldsburg (0-15).
The girls team is third in the OCC-Ohio heading into the final round at Royal American with an 8-7 record, behind North (15-0) and Gahanna (12-3) and ahead of Grove City (7-8), Big Walnut (3-12) and Lancaster (0-15).
Central placed fourth (359) in the third round Aug. 29 at Westchester behind North (338), Gahanna (340) and Grove City (353) and ahead of Big Walnut (404) and Lancaster (472).
Aug. 25 -- Panther Classic at Pickerington North
Sept. 1 -- Asics Hot Summer Bash at Hilliard Davidson
Sept. 8 -- Boys: Mason Invitational; Girls: McGowan Invitational at Watkins Memorial
Sept. 15 -- Otterbein Invitational
Sept. 22 -- Tiger Invitational at home
Sept. 29 -- Midwest Meet of Champions at Hilliard Bradley
Oct. 6 -- Les Eisenhart Invitational at Thomas Worthington
Oct. 13 -- OCC-Ohio meet at Lancaster
Below are the coming schedules for the Central boys golf, girls golf, boys soccer, girls soccer, girls tennis and girls volleyball teams:
Sept. 8 -- St. Charles Invitational at Brookside
Sept. 12 -- OCC-Ohio at Turnberry
Sept. 8 -- Eagle-Panther Invitational at Cooks Creek
Sept. 10 -- Granville at Turnberry
Sept. 12 -- OCC-Ohio at Royal American
Sept. 6 -- At Westerville South
Sept. 6 -- Home vs. Buckeye Valley
Sept. 11 -- At Teays Valley
*Sept. 6 -- At Gahanna
Sept. 11 -- Home vs. Hilliard Bradley
*Sept. 6 -- Home vs. Lancaster