During each of its 10 seasons, the Pickerington High School North boys cross country team has advanced to the Division I regional meet.

During each of its 10 seasons, the Pickerington High School North boys cross country team has advanced to the Division I regional meet.

Having four of their top seven runners back from a year ago has the Panthers believing they'll be in contention to make it at least that far this fall.

North, which made state-meet appearances in 2006 and 2009 and is coming off back-to-back OCC-Ohio Division championships, has a program-best 75 out for the team.

The Panthers opened Aug. 24 by placing third (102) of 11 teams in the Panther Division race of their home Pickerington Classic behind Dublin Coffman (77) and New Albany (95).

"I see us competing to make it to state," said Tim Starkey, who has coached the program since its inception. "It's like every other year where it's going to be about who's best on that day."

Seniors Nick Haghiri and Brian Lanier and juniors Ryan Kronk and Zach Zimmerman are the top returnees.

Junior Farquan Waes also established himself as a top runner during the preseason.

Others competing for spots in the top seven are seniors Durkin Ross and Zach Taylor and juniors Mitchell Curnutte and Sean Malone.

Jackson Branstaetter could be the best of what Starkey sees as a strong freshman class.

Zimmerman was eighth (16 minutes, 57.7 seconds) in the league meet last season as the Panthers scored 47 points to win the title. Haghiri (10th, 17:22.3), Kronk (11th, 17:22.7) and Lanier (12th, 17:23.9) also were in North's top five.

The Panthers earned a runner-up finish (48) in the district 1 meet behind Westerville North (45) and then were seventh (194) at regional behind champion Westerville North (45).

The biggest loss from last season was 2013 graduate Brent Pritchard, who was 35th (16:55.48) at regional.

"Half of our varsity has experience, which is nice," Starkey said. "There's a nice crop of freshmen and I think some of them are racers. With these guys, I've increased their mileage and it's been a lot about strength training."

Central returnsmost of lineup

Nearly every key contributor from a year ago is back for Central, including sophomore Steven Bauers, who became the No. 1 runner in his first season with the program last fall.

On Aug. 17 in the OHSAA Preseason Invitational at National Trail Raceway, Bauers came in 48th (17:45.73) as Central placed 13th (379) in the 24-team Section E race behind champion Mason (68).

On Aug. 24, Central finished seventh (175) in the Panther race of the Pickerington Classic.

"We took a small group of guys to the preseason meet at National Trail, and it went OK," coach Andy Fischer said. "They had a little bit of first-race jitters, but it was a good learning experience. ... These guys have fun together, but they don't go overboard."

Also back after being among the Tigers' top runners last year are seniors Alex Forshey, Terry Peppers and Maaz Shafi, juniors Sean Phillips and Evan Jaynes and sophomores Robert Hoagland and Hunter Denton.

Freshman Jack Jaynes also is expected to be a key runner.

Others looking to contribute are senior Conner Bradford, junior Jon Fee, sophomore Sam Forshey and freshman Nathan Doerfler.

Central placed fifth (142) in the OCC-Ohio meet and fifth (152) in district 1 last year. The Tigers then were 15th (401) at regional.

The only key contributor lost to graduation was Luke Forshey, the brother of Alex and Sam.

"We were fifth out of eight in the conference last year, so our goal is to break the top four," Fischer said.

"And of course our goal is to qualify for the regional again."