Coach Johnny Jackson didn't know how to approach the season for his Westerville North girls cross country team.
With the specter of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic looming, Jackson wasn't sure if the Warriors would even have a season. As the North track and field coach, he'd already had one season canceled and hoped it would not happen again in the fall.
Gov. Mike DeWine gave the go-ahead for cross country Aug. 5, however, allowing Jackson to amp up the Warriors' workout schedule.
"It's been rough, because when I first started off (with workouts), I wasn't pushing like we were going to have a season," said Jackson, who is in his 11th season. "I didn't want to get them in great shape and then not have a season.
"Despite that, they've been doing well and they'll continue to do well. We don't usually peak until the postseason anyway, so that gives us some time."
Junior Paige Miracle returns to lead the Warriors after competing in the Division I regional meet last fall, placing 45th in 20 minutes, 15.8 seconds.
"Things were a little shaky at first because of COVID, but things have gotten a little better," Miracle said. "I feel like we're doing relatively well. We're just working hard, trying to keep our pace up."
Aside from Miracle, Jackson said he expects juniors Hannah Hutto, Erin Mayle, Zuhur Sofe and Emily Widman and sophomores Amanda Cooper and Colleen Lynch to also contribute.
"Paige is pretty much where she was last year at this time," Jackson said. "They all work very hard, and they practice very well all of the time.
"They're dedicated. They like each other and have a good time together. They love being with each other. They'll be dancing and singing but when they need to get down to business, they know what to do."
In the Westerville North Classic on Sept. 5, the Warriors were fifth (118 points) of eight teams in the Gold Division behind champion Jonathan Alder (51).
Miracle (10th, 21:04.98) was the top North finisher, followed by Cooper (11th, 21:09.88), Widman (18th, 21:56.75), Lynch (36th, 23:05.18), Mayle (49th, 23:32.9), Hutto (52nd, 23:43.34), junior Asiya Booth (54th, 23:44.98) and sophomore Caroline Kauh (55th, 23:45.99).
"Our top three are running well and the next three or four have a lot of time they can knock off," Jackson said. 'They're working hard. They just need a little more confidence in themselves."
Warhawks have mix of experience, youth
Central should feature three returning runners along with the addition of a promising freshman group.
"We should be pretty good out front," said coach Ryan Borland, who is in his 13th season. "We have a couple of freshmen who are going to be solid top-five runners for us. They could help us by the end of the year. We should be decent. We're going to be younger with the top seven that we have."
Junior Tara Will, who finished 35th (20:06.5) of 130 runners at last fall's Division I regional meet, is expected to lead the Warhawks.
"She looks really good," Borland said. "She's a kid who has an opportunity to run past high school."
Senior Ashley Hockstok, who was 85th (20:50.5) at regional, has been the No. 2 runner early in the season.
"Ashley and Tara both had a good summer," Borland said. "They're looking pretty good."
Sophomore Rylee Mensel, who was 84th (20:50) at regional, is the No. 3 runner, and senior Lauryn Chapman, another returning regional qualifier, has been the No. 4 runner.
Freshmen Ellie Luba and Alexa Ryan also have been competing for top-five spots, and senior Chloe Stefan-Adams, a regional qualifier, rounds out the top seven.
Other runners expected to contribute are seniors Emma Funderburg and Hannah Thomas and sophomore Kylie Hansen.
Central has moved to the OCC-Ohio Division, where it joins Gahanna, Grove City, New Albany, Pickerington North and Westland.
"It's going to be a weird year (because of the coronavirus pandemic), but I'm just thankful that we're going to have an opportunity," said Borland, who also is Central's track and field coach. "It was a tough spring for the kids. Young people need something that is a little bit normal."
New runners helping to lead Wildcats
South returns key competitors from last season, led by junior Emily Ellsworth and senior Taylor Hughes. They have been the top two runners for the Wildcats at the start of the season.
Freshmen Aubrey Paes and Sarah Marinov have been competing for the third spot, and junior Abigail Cumming-Vukovic and freshman Meghan Worch also have been in the mix for the top five.
Others expected to contribute for coach Erin Focht, who is in her 10th season, include junior Emma Henderson, sophomore Jessica Lehman and freshmen Mabel Cumming-Vukovic and Ella Deichert.
"Erin is very excited about this group of young girls," said Jimmy Gaul, who coaches the boys team and oversees the South program. "They've come into a good spot. We have Taylor, who has been a great leader for us and one of our front-runners for several years. We have other senior leadership and a nice group of girls.
"We have a blend of veteran leadership, experience and young girls who are talented and excited about being brought into the program, and they're having a good time together."
South has moved to the OCC-Capital, joining Big Walnut, Canal Winchester, Delaware, Dublin Scioto, Franklin Heights, Westerville North and Worthington Kilbourne.
"This is light years better than the spring season," Gaul said. "For the last few years we've been talking about positivity, having a growth mindset and making that a part of our program culture -- the idea that every day is an opportunity to get better.
"Every success, every failure, every obstacle is an opportunity to learn and improve, and there's nothing like what's going on right now to start practicing what we've been preaching."