Opponents seeking to get inside Gracie Sprankle's head might want to find a different strategy the next few weeks.
From an experience standpoint, the Olentangy Liberty High School senior cross country standout already is a three-time all-state honoree who also has made back-to-back appearances in the state girls track and field meet.
What Sprankle did at last year's Division I state cross country meet, when she ran all but the first 800 meters with one shoe and still managed to finish fourth in a personal-best 17 minutes, 35.2 seconds, showed her mental strength.
"The maturity level is tremendous," coach Darrell Dewese said. "She approaches the races with a much better mindset. She still gets nervous, but it's not like when she was younger. I'm really happy with the way she's matured and her mindset."
One thing that is different for Sprankle this fall is that she's the lone Liberty competitor capable of winning a race after running the past three seasons with 2018 graduate Emma Bower, who is now competing for Liberty University.
The Patriots have a pack of about a half-dozen runners who figure to keep the team in contention of extending its run of four consecutive state appearances.
Sprankle, though, has higher aspirations after finishing 11th (18:22.4) as a freshman when Liberty was the state runner-up, 14th (18:12.3) as a sophomore when the Patriots placed ninth and helping Liberty place third (172) behind Centerville (122) and Cincinnati Ursuline (137) last fall.
"My goal is definitely to place higher than last year, and my ultimate goal would be to win the state championship," Sprankle said. "I've always wanted to win a state championship and it hasn't happened yet so it's a goal."
The only girls to win a Division I state title from central Ohio are Reynoldsburg's Lyndsi Gay in 1998, Worthington Kilbourne's Claire Durkin in 2007 and Hilliard Davidson's India Johnson in 2016.
Sprankle ran an area-best 18:29.93 on Sept. 22 to win the Strongsville Invitational as Liberty was third (147) of 28 teams behind Hudson (117) and Medina (128).
That came despite Sprankle overcoming a cold and with her believing an even bigger time drop could be coming Saturday, Sept. 29, when the Patriots compete in the Midwest Meet of Champions at Hilliard Bradley.
"My best is 17:35, which I ran last year at the state meet, so my goal is to be back around there by the state meet," Sprankle said. "It's going pretty well. I've had a couple good workouts the past couple weeks."
Sprankle took a big step between her sophomore and junior seasons by going on a mileage uptick, and she did so again this summer, running about 360 miles.
"My workouts were longer and more intense," she said. "I trained with different people from around central Ohio so that helped a lot."
Over the next few weeks, she hopes to make a decision about where she'll run in college, as she sifts through offers from Wisconsin, Indiana and Penn State.
She also hopes to lead more strong finishes for a team that has been building a pack that includes senior Madeline Ailes, juniors Linnea Kunesh and Lauren Buddie, sophomores Audrey Piero, Lauren Woodruff and Haley Kruest and freshman Sarah Gilbert.
"It's definitely been different not seeing (Bower) at school or practice because I've run with her since the seventh grade," said Sprankle, who is considering majoring in kinesiology or exercise science. "It was actually Emma who influenced me to get into running.
"I like the competitive part of (cross country) more than track because it's more team-oriented. Even though it seems more individual, you want to get the highest place you can for your team so you can advance to regionals and states. I just like the competitive part and the unity."
Field hockey team looks to move forward
The field hockey team was 9-2 overall and 3-1 in the Central Ohio Field Hockey League-West Division before facing Dublin Coffman on Sept. 26.
The Patriots continue league play Monday, Oct. 1, at Orange and Wednesday, Oct. 3, at home against Berlin before closing the league schedule Oct. 11 against Olentangy.
Their only losses have been to the two teams that likely are the district's best, Columbus Academy (9-0 on Sept. 13) and Thomas Worthington (6-0 on Sept. 18).
"We're always looking at ways we can improve, and the biggest way we can improve is with those mental tests," coach Marianne Flannery said. "We've just got to capitalize moving forward. We've had a couple notable wins."
Liberty, which has played in six consecutive district finals, including in 2016 when it made it to state for the first time, figures to be among the highest seeds for the district tournament. The drawing is Oct. 7.
Among the standouts so far, according to Flannery, are forward Reese McClelland and defenders Lauren Warner and Faith DiMantova. Forward Dani Worrell has returned after missing the first month with an injury.
Tennis team advances to district semifinal
With a 3-2 victory over Pickerington North on Sept. 19, the girls tennis team advanced to a Division I district semifinal of the Ohio Tennis Coaches Association team tournament.
The Patriots will meet defending district champion Dublin Jerome on a date to be announced.
Before facing Coffman on Sept. 25, Liberty was 10-4 overall. The Patriots went 4-1 in the OCC-Buckeye, while Orange was 3-0 in the league heading into the week with matches to play against Westerville South and Westerville North.
Against Pickerington North, Maddie Atway rallied after losing the first set to beat Cassie Alcala 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the final match. Alcala was the Division I state singles runner-up last season while Atway teamed with Dani Schoenly to win the state doubles title.
Schoenly (second singles) and the team of Lexie Brengartner and Ellie MacDowell (first doubles) also won their courts.
"We're doing things to get ready for states," coach Will Thieman said. "Everybody's playing pretty well these days. It's a fun team. Everyone seems to have fun and work hard. We're playing tough teams where it's close matches and it helps you get better."
Volleyball team set for second round in OCC
On Thursday, Sept. 27, the girls volleyball team visits Orange to begin the second round of OCC-Buckeye action.
Before facing Olentangy on Sept. 25, the Pioneers were 13-0 overall and 4-0 in the league, including beating the defending Division I district champion Pioneers 12-25, 25-22, 25-21, 25-20 on Sept. 4. It was the only game Liberty lost in its first 13 matches.
Last season, the Patriots shared the league title with Orange at 9-1 after the teams split their regular-season matches.
In last week's Division I state poll, Liberty was ninth, Orange was 11th and Olentangy was tied for 13th. The only Central District team ranked higher than the Patriots was Coffman at No. 7.
Below are the coming schedules for the Liberty cross country, field hockey, boys golf, girls golf, boys soccer, girls soccer, girls tennis and girls volleyball teams:
Sept. 29 -- Midwest Meet of Champions at Hilliard Bradley
Sept. 29 -- Home vs. Worthington Kilbourne
*Oct. 1 -- At Olentangy Orange
*Oct. 3 -- Home vs. Olentangy Berlin
Sept. 27 -- Olentangy at Oakhaven
Oct. 2 -- Division I sectional at Turnberry. The top four teams and top four individuals not on qualifying teams advance to the district tournament Oct. 9 at Apple Valley.
Oct. 2 -- Division I sectional at Westchester. The top three teams and top three individuals not on qualifying teams advance to the district tournament Oct. 9 at Cooks Creek.
*Oct. 1 -- At Westerville Central
*Oct. 2 -- Home vs. Westerville Central
Oct. 1 -- At Columbus School for Girls
*Sept. 27 -- At Orange. The Patriots beat the Pioneers 12-25, 25-22, 25-21, 25-20 on Sept. 4.
*Oct. 2 -- Home vs. Westerville South. The Patriots beat the Wildcats 25-11, 25-5, 25-17 on Sept. 6.