As a graduate of Westerville South and the school's longtime cross country and track and field coach, Jimmy Gaul is hoping area athletes can return to some form of normalcy.
Although all sports programs must follow health guidelines while competing during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Gaul is optimistic cross country teams will be able to complete the season.
"Given everything that's gone on since March, it's cautious optimism," Gaul said. "I don't want to take too many things for granted and think that they're not going to change because we've seen things change from one day to the next, but amongst the coaching community in central Ohio for all of our fall sports, this is about as close as to peace and normalcy as we can."
Junior returnee Chase Jackson has emerged as the No. 1 runner for the Wildcats boys team, followed by sophomores Andrew McCracken and Gabriel Combs.
Junior Stephen Vilardo, who is new to the program, has been the fourth runner, with freshman Colin Andrews, senior Liam Allbritton and junior Eeshwar Gattupalli rounding out the top seven.
Seniors Caedin Bouton and Isaac Weaver and juniors Philip Simms and Teague Svendsen also are expected to contribute.
"We all look forward to the season, especially throughout the summer when we were all just waiting for a chance to compete," Bouton said. "(Gaul) is definitely the best coach I could ask for. He's always supporting us. He's always pushing us to do our best."
South opened Aug. 29 at the Pickerington North Classic, where Jackson was ninth of 101 runners in 18 minutes, 1 second to lead the Wildcats.
South finished fourth (98) of five teams behind champion Hilliard Davidson (15).
"There's a lot of promise. There's a lot of potential," said Gaul, who is in his 15th season. "Like any other season, there's going to be a lot of lessons learned between our workouts and race day.
"The plan is going to be the same as always. It's a building process week by week and we want to figure out a way to put our best races together, our most complete and most strategic races together when it matters the most."
South, which finished fifth (131) in the OCC-Buckeye Division meet last season behind champion Olentangy Orange (32), has joined the OCC-Capital with Big Walnut, Canal Winchester, Delaware, Dublin Scioto, Franklin Heights, Westerville North and Worthington Kilbourne.
Fulkerson set to lead Warhawks
Senior Haden Fulkerson was Central's lone Division I regional qualifier a year ago, finishing 35th of 125 competitors in 16:50.9, and he again should be the top runner for the Warhawks.
"He has qualified for regional, but he hasn't made it to state and I know that's one of his big goals for this year," said coach Jason Loughman, who is in his 18th season. "He's running really confident right now and he had a great summer of training. I'm excited to get him into some big meets and see how he does."
Also back are juniors Chip Smith and Dominic Iquina, who have been the second and third runners. Sophomore Ben Yasnowski, freshman Parker Thompson and seniors Evan Radecki and Ian Barta have rounded out the top seven early in the season.
Other contributors are expected to include senior Evan Kienle, junior Aiden Nowalk, sophomore Brady Kerrigan and freshman Donovan Johnson.
"I've been really impressed with the guys in the offseason, (especially) everybody's attitudes and work ethic," Loughman said. "We've had good numbers throughout the summer with the optional conditioning that we typically have and this year we probably had the best attendance yet. Every day these boys look forward to getting together and seeing some teammates, going for runs and training together."
Central, which finished fourth (116) in the OCC-Buckeye meet last season, has joined the OCC-Ohio with Gahanna, Grove City, New Albany, Pickerington North and Westland.
"Pick North and New Albany are really solid," Loughman said. "Gahanna is right there, then us, Grove City and Westland. It's just as competitive as our old conference with the Olentangys. We have some work to do. A great goal for our team would be a top-three finish in our conference."
Top four runners driving Warriors
North has a blend of youth and experience that excites coach Dave Weaner, with senior Isaiah Hutcherson, juniors Owen DeTemple and Rob Houser and sophomore Andrew Bracken pushing each other in practice to make sure they all continue to improve.
"Those four push and pull each other," said Weaner, who is in his 18th season. "They all have an internal competitiveness. They want to see what they can get out of themselves."
Hutcherson competed in the Division I regional meet last season, finishing 83rd in 17:30.3.
"Isaiah is off to a little bit of a slow start this fall and is closing gaps with everyone," Weaner said. "He had a summer job and didn't get as much work in as he would have liked. He has a strong will and heart, and he'll work as hard as anyone. I expect him to be in the 16s by the time we reach the postseason."
Bracken led the Warriors in the Westerville North Classic on Sept. 5, finishing fourth in a personal-best 17:08.46 while Hutcherson was 15th (18:04.8). North was third (102) of six teams behind champion Olentangy (41).
"I like the chemistry that's developing between Isaiah and Andrew," Weaner said. "They are two outstanding and driven runners who will help motivate the team,"
DeTemple (18th, 18:07.76) was next at the home meet, followed by Houser (33rd, 18:38.22), senior Seth Derstine (34th, 18:39.13), sophomore Carson Ebbrecht (44th, 18:54.45) and junior Joey Endres (61st, 19:28.33).
"I'm seeing smart runners that are really thinking about how they want to run, the style that's best to run and who they're running against," Weaner said. "We have some good kids, and they're becoming competitive."