Pickerington North boys cross country runners Matt Duvall and Harper Moore began the season Aug. 24 by finishing first and second, respectively, in the Pickerington Classic on their home course, just .6 of a second apart.
Afterward, neither senior was shy about his expectations for the next two months.
"We're looking for (a) top five (team finish) at the (Division I) state meet, at least," Moore said. "We were fourth in the (Ohio Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches) preseason poll and we might move up. We have pretty high goals. Matt Duvall is looking for a state championship. I am looking for top five in the state."
Such lofty talk is exactly what 17th-year coach Tim Starkey wants to hear as the Panthers try to reach their third consecutive state meet.
North lost only one runner from its top seven last year when it finished eighth (256 points) at state behind champion Hudson (107) in 2019 graduate Jake Prestileo. In addition to Duvall and Moore, the Panthers also return seniors Daniel Newman, Spencer Moledor and Aaron Moraine and junior Nick Whitehead.
"With the mileage they've put in and the experience they have, I really think we can do special things with this group," Starkey said. "We've been training harder. They've been willing to do whatever it takes and they've really come together, from freshmen to seniors.
"Matt (who finished seventh at state last year) has definitely set his sights high. He wants to win it all. Harper (who was 18th at state) wants to be right there with him and I think he can be. It takes something special to be a top finisher at state. It's whoever wants it most and hurts the least that can get it done."
North won the 18-team Panther Division race in the Pickerington Classic with 59 points, well ahead of runner-up Thomas Worthington (107).
Scoring behind Duvall (first, 15:46.1) and Moore (second, 15:46.7) were Moledor (16th, 16:52.4), Moraine (18th, 17:00.9) and Whitehead (22nd, 17:13.1).
"We've never had a top five that has run with this speed before," Moore said. "We'll definitely have all of them under 17, hopefully by (the Tiffin Cross Country Carnival on Saturday, Sept. 7)."
Other expected varsity contributors include senior Jackson Paas, sophomore Alex Becker and freshmen Aidan Eberhardt and Justin Schumacher.
Last season, North finished third (56) in OCC-Ohio Division meet behind Gahanna (41) and Pickerington Central (54) before winning its second consecutive district championship and finishing fifth at regional.
The Panthers finished ninth at state two years ago.
"I'd say the lineup is pretty set. Positions seem pretty well locked in," Starkey said. "We might have a little jockeying back and forth further back in the lineup, but the whole goal for these guys is just to be the best first, second, third, fourth or fifth runner they can be."
Rittman leading girls runners
Sophomore Emma Rittman of the girls cross country team began this season where her freshman year ended, in more ways than one.
Rittman, who was the Panthers' only Division I regional qualifier last year, finished 33rd (21:19.4) in the 12-team Panther Division of the Pickerington Classic to lead North to 10th place behind champion Thomas (83). That was 1:25.6 slower than Rittman's time last year on the same course at regional, where she finished 23rd, but 17th-year coach Jim Langenderfer still was encouraged.
"We used a four-letter word with her called 'pace,'" Langenderfer said. "Emma was very excited. I think she went out well but maybe kept the hammer down too long. She had a breathing cramp, but that's fixable. ...
"Emma had a great season last year. She is much stronger than last year and that's the progression you like to see. She has a great attitude."
Also scoring Aug. 24 were freshmen Ashley Khatib (37th, 21:21.6), senior Brianna Bowden (44th, 21:37.6) and sophomores Lainy Grube (54th, 21:48.7) and Bryn Woodruff (70th, 22:21.9).
"Our team is much stronger and faster than we were at this time last year," Langenderfer said. "We have about 45 girls out and we have a lot more speed. I think now it's a matter of working on that cardio strength that we'll need to get them the distance, but they still need speed to get out and finish strong. We have a season to work on it."
Others challenging for spots in the top seven include seniors Briana Cavendish and Maggie Miller, junior Emily Harness, sophomore Chloe Horne and freshman Natali Filippi.
Last season, North finished fourth (98) in the OCC-Ohio meet behind champion Lancaster (42) and sixth at district.
Golf teams vying for league titles
The girls golf team was in second place in the OCC-Ohio entering the fourth and final round of the league tournament Sept. 4 at Mentel Memorial, one match behind Grove City.
Cassie Tasney's round of 82 led North to a team score of 360 in the third round Aug. 28 at New Albany Links, ahead of Grove City (364), Central (369), Gahanna (375), Big Walnut (411) and Lancaster (555). Also scoring were Reagan Norton (90), Kendall Burton (93) and Allyson Rosen (95).
The Panthers were 12-3 in the league before Sept. 4, behind the Greyhounds (13-2) and ahead of Gahanna (10-5), Central (7-8), Big Walnut (3-12) and Lancaster (0-15).
The boys team finished fourth (331) in the third round of the OCC-Ohio tournament Aug. 27 at Denison Golf Club behind Gahanna (321), Grove City (327) and Central (330) and ahead of Lancaster (362) and Reynoldsburg (402) but remains in contention for the title.
North is 10-5 in the league entering the fourth round Wednesday, Sept. 11, at Turnberry, tied with Grove City for third place behind Central (12-3) and Gahanna (11-4) and ahead of Lancaster (3-12) and Reynoldsburg (0-15).
Colin Mulligan shot a 78 to lead the Panthers on Aug. 27, followed by Carson Bellish (80), Elijah Hale (82) and Tomasz Douangsy (91).
Below are the coming schedules for the North cross country, boys golf, girls golf, boys soccer, girls soccer, girls tennis and girls volleyball teams:
Sept. 7 -- Tiffin Cross Country Carnival
Sept. 7 -- St. Charles Invitational at Brookside
Sept. 9 -- Gdovin Memorial Invitational at Zanesville Country Club
Sept. 11 -- OCC-Ohio at Turnberry
Sept. 10 -- Westerville Central at Pine Hill
Sept. 5 -- At Canal Winchester
*Sept. 10 -- At Pickerington Central
Sept. 5 -- Home vs. Hilliard Davidson
*Sept. 10 -- At Pickerington Central
*Sept. 5 -- Home vs. Grove City
Sept. 7 -- Home vs. Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown and Toledo Central Catholic
Sept. 10 -- At Dublin Coffman
Sept. 11 -- At Olentangy
*Sept. 5 -- Home vs. Gahanna
*Sept. 10 -- Home vs. Lancaster