Ken Whalen is excited about the prospects for his first season as coach of the Olentangy High School boys cross country team.

Ken Whalen is excited about the prospects for his first season as coach of the Olentangy High School boys cross country team.

He's familiar with many of the runners, having coached at Shanahan Middle School the past eight seasons. He replaced Mike Moran, who led the program for seven seasons.

The Braves return junior Anthony Sasso, who finished 73rd (16 minutes, 41.02 seconds) in the Division I state meet last fall after taking 16th (16:34.4) at regional to earn the final state-qualifying spot.

Also back after competing at regional are juniors Zach Balthaser (74th, 17:38.24) and Alex Garner (115th, 18:54.3).

"We have the three returning and then we have anywhere from four to 10 guys fighting for our next four through seven positions," Whalen said. "We have a nice base, but now we may be young and inexperienced."

Olentangy started with a strong performance, finishing third (106) in the eight-team Mount Vernon Kiwanis Invitational on Aug. 29 at Foundation Park behind Massillon Jackson (34) and Wooster (39) and ahead of Westerville Central (109).

Sasso was eighth (16:31.6), followed by Balthaser (17th, 16:50.8), Garner (26th, 17:10.8), sophomore Jeremy Kendle (32nd, 17:27.8), freshman Carter Schaefer (37th, 17:44.3), junior Tyler Reed (41st, 17:52.4) and junior Grant Maddox (47th, 17:27.8).

"We have 39 runners out with 28 sophomores and juniors, and only one senior in Joshua Noe," Whalen said. "In cross country, you only need five runners to score. The more kids you have, the more likely you are to find good runners. We have a nice base to start."

In the OCC-Capital Division, the Braves are trying to catch New Albany and Orange after finishing third (56) in the league meet last year behind the Eagles (33) and Pioneers (34).

Pioneers ranked fourth in state

Expectations are high for Orange, which was ranked fourth in the Division I state preseason poll behind top-ranked Cleveland St. Ignatius.

The Pioneers return junior Hunter Moore, who finished 20th (15:58.43) at state last season. Also back are senior Brandon Morrow, juniors Tommy Heiden, Matt Hartzell and Brandon Lane and sophomores Tyler King and Jackson Schiefelbein.

"I like the way our runners worked over the summer because they want to achieve things that no team in program history has," third-year coach Adam Walters said. "We obviously want to win our first (OCC-Capital) title and then we will be in the conversation for district and regional titles, but we want to take first things first."

Orange opened by finishing third (91) of 26 teams in the Cincinnati Moeller Primetime Invitational on Aug. 28 at the Golf Center at Kings Island behind Mason (55) and Cincinnati St. Xavier (82).

Moore placed second (15:57.2) behind Fort Thomas (Ky.) Highlands' Ethan Shuley (15:32.1). Morrow was eighth (16:27.8), followed by Heiden (21st, 16:53.2), Hartzell (29th, 17:00.1), Schiefelbein (34th, 17:08.1), King (37th, 17:13.1) and junior Josh Brooks (40th, 17:15.3).

"My main concern is injuries," Walters said. "Brandon Lane has been dealing with a stress fracture in a foot, but when we're healthy we have a three-headed monster (Moore, Morrow and Lane) that is tough to match. We just need the other guys to close in on those three."

Patriots log miles to aid improvement

Liberty put in the miles in the offseason with hopes of returning to state.

The Patriots did not compete at state last season, breaking a three-year run.

"The team ran over 20,000 miles collectively this summer," ninth-year coach Jared Mills said. "The kids are in great shape, and the seniors are embracing the leadership role that they have inherited. They are looking for ways to get better and guide the team back to the state meet."

Liberty returns four runners who competed at regional last year, including senior Luke Wojciechowski (50th, 17:16.91), junior Ryan Milligan (55th, 17:20.81) and senior John Ropchock (72nd, 17:36.86). Senior Mitchell Towne participated, but did not complete the course.

"This team is the hardest-working team from top to bottom that we have ever coached," Mills said. "Our main focus had been on developing a winning effort. If this team can walk off the course at the end of the season knowing they became the best they are capable of becoming, then the season has been a success."

The Patriots opened Aug. 29 by finishing 10th (286) behind champion and OCC-Central rival Thomas Worthington (67) in the 17-team Panther Division of the Pickerington Classic at Pickerington North.

Wojciechowski was 51st (17:45.9), followed by sophomore Logan Boone (52nd, 17:46), Towne (53rd, 17:46.2) freshman Adam Clark (55th, 17:46.5), Ropchock (76th, 18:11.5), sophomore Will Koberna (77th, 18:13.5) and senior Austin Anderson (82nd, 18:16.6).

Last year in the league meet, Thomas was second (43) and Liberty was fourth (121) behind champion Hilliard Davidson (37).