Pickerington High School North boys cross country coach Tim Starkey isn't ashamed to confess he's been involved in a deception over the past few months.

Pickerington High School North boys cross country coach Tim Starkey isn't ashamed to confess he's been involved in a deception over the past few months.

With a large group of expected returnees from a team that won a league championship a year ago, Starkey decided to boost his runners' summer course load in anticipation of the coming season.

He never specifically, however, announced the mileage increase to any of them.

"I'm taking a risk this year," said Starkey, who is in his 10th season leading the program. "I've had them all do more miles this year, but I've just been sneaking it in. We're going to see how it goes."

North opened Aug. 25 by finishing second (82) in the 12-team Panther race in the home Pickerington Classic. Kings Mills Kings (74) was first.

Senior Brent Pritchard is back as the No. 1 runner after turning in an eighth-place finish (17 minutes, 10.2 seconds) in the OCC-Ohio Division meet a year ago. He went on to place sixth (16:50.36) in the Division I, district 2 meet and was 21st (16:48.54) at regional to miss advancing to state by five spots.

Also back are seniors Adam Honaker, Nick Newman and Sean Saffle, juniors Nick Hagihiri and Brian Lanier and sophomores Ryan Kronk and Zach Zimmerman.

The Panthers have a program-best 72 athletes out this season.

Last season, North scored 58 points to edge Reynoldsburg (64) for the league title. Lancaster (71), Newark (108), Gahanna (113), Pickerington Central (118), Grove City (215) and Groveport (239) rounded out the standings. Paul Hintz, a 2012 graduate, was 10th (17:17.7) in the league meet, followed by Zimmerman (12th, 17:23.6), Newman (13th, 17:24.2), Lanier (15th, 17:38.1), Kronk (20th, 17:57.3) and 2012 graduate Austin Kilgore (26th, 18:07.1).

North was third (74) at district behind New Albany (64) and Hilliard Bradley (72), as Pritchard was followed by Zimmerman (eighth, 16:58.09).

At regional, the Panthers were fifth (179) behind champion Olentangy Liberty (91) as the top four teams advanced to state.

"The team is looking good," Starkey said. "They all put in a lot of miles and all have fairly similar ability. They can key off the guy next to them. We graduated 15 guys so we thought we'd have our numbers go down into the 50s, but we've got 72 with a senior class of 22. There's something we have that is something people want to be a part of."

Central girls to rebuild under Nichols

Hunter Nichols, a 2004 Pickerington Central graduate, took over the girls program at his alma mater over the summer. Melissa Balko, who had been the coach for nine years, stepped down after last season.

Nichols, who was a state qualifier in cross country as a senior in 2003 and then ran at Ashland and Radford universities, previously helped out with the distance runners for the Central girls track team.

His first team has 19 runners, including five of the seven who ran for the Tigers in the postseason last fall.

Junior Elizabeth Weed is the top returnee after she was fifth (20:39.8) in the league meet, sixth (20:04.7) in district 1 and 21st (20:18.95) at regional to miss advancing to state by five spots.

Senior Julia Filby, juniors Stephanie Gase and Morgan Richardson and sophomore Madison Cheyunski also are back. Others looking to contribute are seniors Raquelita Drake, Carissa Trunzo and Danielle Trunzo and sophomore Jayla Doggette.

Last season, the Tigers were fourth (98) in the OCC-Ohio behind Gahanna (49), Pickerington North (51) and Lancaster (92) and ahead of Reynoldsburg (150), Grove City (173), Newark (225) and Groveport (247).

Cheyunski was 11th (21:23.8) in the league meet, followed by 2012 graduate Emily Sharrett (25th, 22:51.5), Gase (26th, 22:59.8) and Filby (31st, 23:11.3).

Then at district, Central was seventh (160) behind champion Dublin Coffman (41). Cheyunski followed a 15th-place finish at district (21:01.62) by placing 96th (22:18.43) at regional.

The Tigers opened Aug. 25 by placing eighth (237) in the 14-team Bengal race of the Pickerington Classic behind champion Westerville North (86).

"I only took over in the summer, but I think it's been going pretty well," Nichols said. "One of our goals this year is to try to get our team to the regional. I kind of threw down the gauntlet to them and just said, 'No more mediocrity.' There are 16 teams that go to the regional, so we want to be one of them."

North girls excited about depth, talent

The North girls program was the only one in the district to have a state qualifier last season in Kristen Eisenhauer, and she's back for her senior season.

Eisenhauer placed third (20:30.3) in last fall's league meet to help North (51) earn a runner-up finish behind Gahanna (49). Then in the district 3 meet, she was second (19:16.63) to help North place fourth (114) behind champion Hilliard Davidson (43).

Eisenhauer was 13th (19:48.42) at regional, where the Panthers were 15th (291) behind champion Davidson (74).

Eisenhauer, who also was a state qualifier as a sophomore, placed 96th (20:02.76) in the state meet a year ago.

Also back are seniors Fayth Greegor and Sarah Rini, juniors Jordan Potts and Sinclair Stockard and sophomore Kasey Holter. Seniors Becca Blackburn, Jasmine Lambert, Cortney Palmer and Emily Sambuco, juniors Alyssa Geraci, Cheyenne Khezrdanamer and Kelsey Waite, sophomores Leah Blankenship, Shelby Meyerrose, Rosa Rumora and Elizabeth Weicek and freshmen Kat Lowe and Rachel Rickman also are looking to contribute.

Last season in the league meet, Eisenhauer was followed by 2012 graduate Meg Moledor (seventh, 20:58.8), Greegor (12th, 21:27.6), 2012 graduates Gabby Bobadilla (13th, 21:42.2) and Alexa Strejeck (16th, 22:06.7), Holter (18th, 22:26.8) and Potts (19th, 22:28).

The Panthers, who have about 65 athletes in the program, opened Aug. 25 by placing third (103) in the six-team Panther race of the Pickerington Classic. Coffman (42) was first and Liberty (64) was second.

"Our senior class has great talent and great leaders," 10th-year coach Jim Langenderfer said. "We've got 21 seniors, which is its own cross country team for most schools. If it wasn't for us having such strong leadership, it could be chaos because we have such a large group of girls."

Central boys hope to take strides

Ninth-year Central boys coach Andy Fischer likes where his team stands compared to this time a year ago.

"I'm anticipating good things," he said. "We've got 29 guys, which is one more than we had last year, and in our time trials, this year's group beat last year's group, which is surprising."

Central opened Aug. 25 by finishing 11th (273) in the Panther race of the Pickerington Classic.

Although three of the Tigers' top four runners from last season graduated, seniors Luke Forshey, Alex Meineke and Brock Ritter, juniors Alex Forshey and Maaz Shafi and sophomores Evan Jaynes, Sean Phillips and Jonathan Taranto all are returnees.

Freshman Steven Bauers is another looking to contribute.

Brennan McCotter, Mason Prater, Michael Gase and Kyle Gambert were among those lost to graduation.

Last season, Central was sixth (118) in the league behind champion North (58) as McCotter was ninth (17:17.6), followed by Prater (17th, 17:45.9), Shafi (22nd, 18:02.4), Gase (31st, 18:26.9), Gambert (39th, 18:48.8), Alex Forshey (41st, 18:50.5) and Phillips (42nd, 18:53.1).

The Tigers were fifth (124) in the district 1 meet behind champion Davidson (42) to advance to regional. McCotter was 10th (16:58.8) and Prater took 14th (17:05.4).

Central then was 16th (399) at regional as McCotter was 34th (17:07.12).

"We've got big sophomore and freshmen classes," Fischer said. "Some of the young ones are pushing some of these older guys. That helps so that none of them get complacent. I'd like us to make a run to at least make the top four in the conference. We're young, but we've still got a shot at being a regional-qualifying team."