Heidi Engelhardt of the Westerville North High School girls cross country team admits she didn't come close to being on varsity the past three years at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake (N.Y.).

Heidi Engelhardt of the Westerville North High School girls cross country team admits she didn't come close to being on varsity the past three years at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake (N.Y.).

"I might have run 21 minutes once. It was definitely hard work and training," she said. "I learned where I was as a runner. It helped me up there."

Now she's helping the Warriors and exceeding not only her own expectations, but those of her team.

Engelhardt, a senior, has become a solid No. 2 runner behind sophomore Heather Sandvik. Sandvik and Engelhardt have been the Warriors' top two finishers in every meet, powering the team to a victory in the Pickerington North Invitational on Aug. 25, a second-place finish in the Westerville Classic on Sept. 1 and fourths in the McGowan Invitational on Sept. 8 at Watkins Memorial and the Central Ohio Invitational on Sept. 15 at Three Creeks Metro Park.

"She has been a blessing," coach Johnny Jackson said of Engelhardt. "I already knew what she was capable of as long as she was feeling good about herself and being back at Westerville North. Getting back here, liking her surroundings and being more confident is the key. I knew she'd be our No. 2, but she's already surpassed whatever expectations I had as to what she'd actually do."

Engelhardt ran 20:15.4 at Pickerington, placing sixth overall. She followed that up with a fourth-place finish (20:10.3) in the Westerville Classic, a 10th (20:08.4) in the McGowan and eighth (19:21.65) in the Central Ohio Invitational.

"(Sept. 15) is the first time we've had all five girls under 21 (minutes) and it's just awesome," Engelhardt said. "We use each other to thrive."

Engelhardt comes from a running family. Her older brother, Ben, was third in the state in Division I in the 3,200 meters in 2005, placed fourth in the state cross country meet in 2004 and currently runs at Arizona State University.

Their family moved to Burnt Hills, north of Albany, N.Y., in 2009 and returned to Westerville earlier this year. The Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake girls earned a state runner-up finish in Class B -- roughly equivalent to Division II in Ohio -- last year and third in Class A, the state's highest, in 2010.

The Warriors have aspirations to improve on a fifth-place finish in the Division I, district 2 meet and 10th at regional last year, but first on the list is overcoming OCC-Cardinal Division power Dublin Scioto.

"If we can hang anywhere close to Scioto, we're going to be OK," Jackson said. "But we're a lot stronger than we were last year. Heidi's made it great."

Warhawks, Wildcats running with purpose

Central's girls and South's boys didn't record their best finishes of the season in the Central Ohio Invitational, but their coaches liked what they saw.

"They were racing instead of running," said Warhawks coach Ryan Borland, whose team was eighth with 195 points. "I just could see a more focused look on their face (that told me) they were engaged in the race. I didn't feel like we had that the first couple weeks. I thought we were just out for runs and they were way too comfortable. Today, they were engaged in what they were trying to accomplish."

Borland's goal for the next month is closing the gap between his second and third runners. In the Westerville Classic, Natalie Pinney was the team's second placer (22:00.54), 38 seconds ahead of Gracie Boden in third. But that gap widened to more than a minute last weekend in the Central Ohio Invitational; Boden was second for the team and 25th overall in 20:24.49, and Pinney was third for the team and 45th in overall in 21:25.21.

South coach Jimmy Gaul, who oversees both the boys and girls teams, said his team is improving at "thinking through races."

"We've talked about strategy and pacing today and I saw them really concentrating on that (during the Central Ohio Invitational)," Gaul said. "They raced together a lot this week and with the way they finished, they capitalized on that as well."

Sophomore Nick Vermaaten led the boys team (39th, 17:23.37), ahead of a pack that included sophomore Derek Wei in 48th (17:53.99) and senior Tyler Whitney in 49th (17:54.93).

The girls team was without top runner Lauren Frank, a two-sport athlete who sat out the race with a soccer injury. Junior Jenna Fudale led the Warriors (36th, 21:00.74), and classmate Victoria Husain set her personal record by 1:17, placing 47th in 21:34.37. Caryn Snide (63rd, 22:37.55) set a personal record by 1:29.