Coming off a Division I state appearance, Matt Duvall and Harper Moore intend to be difference-makers for the Pickerington High School North boys cross country team.
But as far as Moore is concerned, the Panthers' ultimate fortunes might be determined further down the lineup.
"I think it starts with our third, fourth and fifth guys. If they can stay close together, stay almost 30 seconds behind us, that can really help us," said Moore, who, like Duvall, is a junior. "One of our biggest problems has been when our middle pack falls off. They're getting it together, though, and they're training really hard."
Four of North's top five runners are back from last year, when the Panthers won the OCC-Ohio Division championship and a district title before finishing ninth at state in their first appearance there as a team since 2009.
Senior Jake Prestileo and junior Spencer Moledor also return for 16th-year coach Tim Starkey, who expects additional contributions from juniors Aaron Moraine and Daniel Newman and sophomores Ben Dinsmore and Nick Whitehead.
In North's season-opening Panther Classic on Aug. 25, Duvall finished first (15 minutes, 54.97 seconds) and Moore was third (16:04.87) to lead the Panthers to 87 points and second place of 17 teams behind league rival Gahanna (85).
"We're not happy with getting second, especially to Gahanna, but we have high goals and so far, we're racing pretty well," Starkey said. "We could have a lot of jockeying around in the lineup. The key to success will be our third, fourth and fifth guys. Matt and Harper, we can't ask much more of them at this point. They are ready to lead. It was great that they had (2018 graduate) Ashwin (Briggs) to lead them into their junior and senior years. He taught them well, and that's what they are going to do for our younger guys."
Also scoring in the Panther Classic were Prestileo (21st, 17:18.97), Moraine (30th, 17:32.31) and Whitehead (32nd, 17:33.07). Moledor sat out because of an injury.
Other expected contributors include senior Jackson Paas, junior Josh Lundgren and freshman Sam Duvall.
North scored 36 points at last year's OCC-Ohio meet to finish ahead of runner-up Lancaster (48). The Panthers placed fourth at regional and then were ninth (244) of 20 teams at state as Hudson won (73).
"We want to make state again and we think we have a good shot at winning the conference title," Starkey said. "Our league is going to be an absolute dogfight with Gahanna and Central and probably Lancaster, too. We will see what we can do."
On an individual level, Matt Duvall is trying to reach his third consecutive state meet, while Moore is hoping for his second berth in a row.
"We have a good team, even better than last year, and Matt and I have individual aspirations, too," Moore said. "We want to be at least top 10 in the state."
Underclassmen helping lead girls runners
Sixteenth-year girls cross country coach Jim Langenderfer is dealing with an influx of talented freshmen, three of whom finished in the top seven at the Panther Classic.
Skylar Briggs was the only loss to graduation from North's top seven last season, when the Panthers finished fourth (118) in the league meet behind champion Gahanna (26) and did not advance any runners to regional.
"Our freshman group is strong and they've already made an impact. Right now, I think we're stronger than we were at this point last year," Langenderfer said. "Our freshmen have certainly helped, but we have some seniors who are capable of leading and a very strong junior class. We really have four strong classes in a row. That's so valuable and important, and this team is working harder than ever."
Freshman Emma Rittman finished 11th (20:15.44) in the Panther Classic to lead North to ninth place (227) in the 12-team Panther Division behind champion Olentangy Orange (70).
Also scoring were sophomores Emily Harness (34th, 21:22.87) and Audrey Monge (53rd, 21:56.98) and juniors Brianna Bowden (72nd, 22:33.96) and Briana Cav-endish (74th, 22:42.78).
Freshmen Ryona Gilmore (84th, 23:03.92) and Lainy Grube (87th, 23:07.72) also were in North's top seven.
Senior Kristen Emswiler and sophomore Annabel Malone sat out the race because of injuries.
Other potential contributors include senior Jordan Wilson, junior Allie Westall and freshman Bryn Woodruff.
"I think our order can be interchangeable," Langenderfer said. "The competition will always be there. I just want the girls to strive to finish as close to the front as they can. It makes for a stronger team all the way around."
Girls golfers closing in on league title
The girls golf team enters the fourth and final round of the OCC-Ohio tournament Wednesday, Sept. 12, at Royal American in firm control of first place in the league.
North is 15-0 through three rounds, ahead of Gahanna (12-3), Pickerington Central (8-7), Grove City (7-8), Big Walnut (3-12) and Lancaster (0-15).
The Panthers edged the Lions for first place in the third round Aug. 29 at Westchester, shooting a 338 to finish ahead of Gahanna (340), Grove City (353), Central (359), Big Walnut (404) and Lancaster (472).
Caroline Kane shot a 77 to lead North.
The boys team is 9-6 in the OCC-Ohio, third behind Gahanna (15-0) and Central (12-3) and ahead of Grove City (6-9), Lancaster (3-12) and Reynoldsburg (0-15) heading into the final round Sept. 12 at Turnberry.
Led by Tomasz Dou-angsy's 79, the Panthers shot a 325 in the third round Aug. 28 at Denison Golf Club to finish third behind Gahanna (320) and Central (323) and ahead of Grove City (329) and Lancaster (347). Reynoldsburg did not record a team score.
Aug. 25 -- Panther Classic at home
Sept. 1 -- Boys: Ashland Invitational; Girls: Westerville North Classic
Sept. 8 -- Tiffin Carnival
Sept. 15 -- Boys: Central Ohio Invitational at Three Creeks Metro Park; Girls: Milford Invitational
Sept. 22 -- Tiger Invitational at Pickerington Central
Sept. 29 -- Panther Invitational at home
Oct. 6 -- Les Eisenhart Invitational at Thomas Worthington
Oct. 13 -- OCC-Ohio meet at Lancaster
Below are the coming schedules for the North boys golf, girls golf, boys soccer, girls soccer, girls tennis and girls volleyball teams:
Sept. 8 -- St. Charles Invitational at Brookside
Sept. 10 -- Gdovin Memorial Invitational at Zanesville Country Club
Sept. 12 -- OCC-Ohio at Turnberry
Sept. 6 -- Olentangy Liberty and Watterson at Airport
Sept. 8 -- Eagle-Panther Invitational at Cooks Creek
Sept. 12 -- OCC-Ohio at Royal American
Sept. 6 -- At Thomas Worthington
Sept. 11 -- Home vs. Watkins Memorial
Sept. 8 -- Home vs. Mason
Sept. 11 -- At Hilliard Davidson
*Sept. 6 -- At Grove City
Sept. 8 -- Home vs. Mason and Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown
*Sept. 6 -- At Gahanna
Sept. 11 -- At Olentangy Orange