Pickerington Central girls cross country coach Jacob Schimberg already has noticed the benefits of two months of summer conditioning, coupled with his runners' desire to compete in the wake of spring sports falling victim to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
The Tigers return the core of a team led by senior and two-time Division I regional qualifier Grace Osborn as well as junior Emily Green and sophomores Amber Carter, Ashley Carter, Anna Heren and Talia Mauro, and most of them have been running together since summer work began in June.
"We've had a high level of 'buy in' based on the fact that our summer attendance was amazing. Many of our athletes had already been running, which made conditioning much more successful," said Schimberg, whose second season began Aug. 29 with the Pickerington Classic at Pickerington North. "The team camaraderie formed quickly. It did not take very many practices before our girls were invested in each other and showing tons of support towards one another.
"We have a team that desperately wants to have a season. Considering all the uncertainty surrounding fall sports as it relates to COVID-19, our girls have been positive and determined."
Osborn was 34th at regional last year and 40th as a sophomore, when the team qualified. Central finished sixth at district last year to fall one spot shy of returning as a team.
Osborn began her season with a win at North in 21:05.7.
Senior Grace Vega also was in the top seven to start the season. That group will be without an expected contributor in junior Brenna Todd, who will miss most or all of the season because of a left leg injury.
"A pecking order has started to show itself. However, it's so early in the season that it's difficult to say for sure," said Schimberg, whose team has moved from the OCC-Ohio Division to the OCC-Buckeye. "We have many new runners that have potential along with a strong group of returnees. As the season progresses, girls will begin to figure out their roles."
According to Schimberg, other varsity contributors will include juniors Mia Doukakis and Mallory Schmidt and freshman Ava McWherter.
Khatib, Rittman help lead Panthers
Two-time Division I regional qualifier Emma Rittman returns for North, which is coming off its first regional appearance as a team since 2014.
Rittman was the Panthers' top runner in eight of nine races last year and finished 29th at regional.
Four of North's remaining top six are back in senior Emily Harness, juniors Lainy Grube and Bryn Woodruff and sophomore Ashley Khatib, although 18th-year coach Jim Langenderfer expects them to be challenged by a handful of teammates.
"It was a special season for all of us," said Langenderfer, whose team opened at the Pickerington Classic. "That excitement and energy has carried us into this season. The girls were excited to get together over the summer when we were able to run.
"We changed our training a little because of the (COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic) guidelines and we might be a little ahead of the extra coaching time. We were more structured and I think we'll see that pay off."
Langenderfer expected Khatib to push Rittman for the top spot or be a consistent second runner.
"I thought Emma was in good shape last year. She looks even stronger this year and definitely faster," Langenderfer said. "Ashley is one of the many girls who really went out and ran a lot in the spring. She was bored at home and got into the habit of running every day. Now, she's very much improved."
Other varsity runners include senior Audrey Monge, juniors Allie Gach and Gia Wetherell, sophomore Natali Filippi and freshman Camille Sabau.
The Panthers hope to continue moving up the OCC-Ohio standings, as they finished third at last year's league meet and fourth in 2018, and also to reach state as a team for the first time since 2006.
"We still want to try to win the conference. That's always our goal," Langenderfer said. "As far as getting to state, let's see how everything plays out. We know our talent level and we know what we're doing, but it comes down to the other schools in the area, too. It's never an easy task."