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Prep girls cross country: Catholic could surprise this season

By Nick Brockman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One of the best-kept secrets in prep running lies in plain sight in the visage of youth at Charleston Catholic.

The Irish girls cross country team hides its talent in a cloak of inexperience, but the skill displayed to Coach Scott Welch has given him plenty of reason for high expectations this season.

"We're under the radar," Welch said. "We have three very good freshmen that are coming up. It's probably the most talented team I've had in four or five years."

Catholic begins the season unranked in girls Class A-AA, according to the preseason poll published by www.runwv.com. Those rankings, however, do not incorporate newcomers or incoming freshmen.

"Right now, nobody knows about them, nobody knows they're running," Welch said of his youthful bunch.

Hannah Gacek, Lia Preston and Mary Katherine Kay represent the Irish freshman class that hopes to carry Catholic to the podium this November.

The other three runners among Catholic's top six will split time with the Irish soccer program. Sophomores Payton Mullen, Peyton Keener and senior Annie Crockett shine on the pitch, as well as the course. Mullen and Keener each ran as part of Catholic's state champion 4x800-meter relay in June.

The soccer schedule will prevent Catholic's multi-sport athletes from contributing in every meet, though Welch said he expects the team to be at full strength for the Forest Festival Invitational, hosted by Elkins Sept. 14.

Until then, Catholic's potential remains a mystery, known by few beyond Welch and the Irish.

"I'm real curious to see what these girls are going to do," he said.

Also in Class A-AA Region IV, Ravenswood and Scott enter the season ranked fifth and sixth, respectively. Ravenswood returns two of the state's top 10 runners in juniors Hailey Miller and Taylor Treadway.

Scott will look to follow last year's third-place finish behind the trio of Sheena Chambers, Samantha Graffius and Courtney Goodwin, among others.

Individually, Wayne senior Kylie Rutherford ranks among the region's and state's top runners.

Other teams competing in the region include Buffalo, Calhoun County, Gilmer County, Herbert Hoover, Poca, Nicholas County, Roane County, St. Joe Central, Sissonville and Wirt County.

Across the state, defending champ Philip Barbour, defending runner-up Frankfort and preseason No. 1 Williamstown look to be the favorites.

Class AAA Region IV

Putnam County rivals Hurricane and Winfield are expected to battle for the regional title, but neither will be overlook Cabell Midland.

For the Redskins and Generals, depth plays pivotal in the programs' success.

"We run pretty deep," first-year Winfield Coach Kelsey Spang said, "so I'm pretty excited to see whenever we get into the thick of the season who is going to step up and who's actually going to be able to do it."

Winfield enters the season rated sixth, led by sophomore Brittney McMillion, who placed 15th as a freshman at the state championship.

Fellow sophomores Rachel Englund and Nikki Shrader, as well as seniors Barkley Castro and Darian Wikel and freshman Alyssa Rittinger join McMillion in the team's top six.

At Hurricane, Coach Jason Henley, who replaced long-time Coach Bill Posey, said he hopes to return to state after last year's third-place showing, but the Redskins will have to replace graduated seniors Emily Schwendiman, Natalie Schwendiman and Baylee Summers.

"We basically just reload," Henley said of fourth-ranked Hurricane. "We had a strong team last year that was basically undefeated through the regular season except for one out-of-state meet, and we won conference and regionals."

Senior Tori Dent returns to lead the team after sitting out the track season. Seniors Ally Lawhon, Krissy Rich, junior Joie Johnston, sophomore Abbie Short and freshmen Anna Gordon and Taylor Walroth will also look to lift the Redskins statebound.

Meanwhile, eighth-ranked Midland will also look to contend with Hurricane and Winfield.

"This team has potential," Knights Coach Chris Parsons said of his 29-member squad. "They're going to have to work hard to get to state. We're in a tough region. You've got Winfield, who's going to be very good this year. Hurricane's always good. Right now, if you're looking on paper, those are the top two teams in our region."

Midland graduated four members from its team that finished fifth at the state championship meet last season. Senior Shelby Nelson, junior Jenna Marsh and sophomore Hannah Morgan return from that squad.

In addition, sophomores Zoey Chapman, Audreanna Lewis and junior Kendell McNeely will be top contributors. Freshmen Katie Riedel and Allison Short represent the No. 1 and No. 2 Cabell County middle school runners from last year. Fellow freshman Lindsey Cummings will also contribute, Parsons said.

Within the region, Huntington, Lincoln County, Logan, Nitro, Point Pleasant, St. Albans and Spring Valley will also compete.

Across the state, Parsons and Henley said defending champ Morgantown and runner-up University, along with Jefferson, will be the teams to beat this season.

Class AAA Region III

Defending regional champ Capital returns with one of the state's top runners in junior Peyton Panger, who placed eighth at last year's state meet.

"Peyton's in good condition," Capital Coach Jared Smith said. "She's had a good summer in training. She seems like she's got more intensity now."

Sophomores Riley Simmerman and Mary Keeton Lane will look to help 10th-ranked Capital remain among regional favorites. Five freshmen will join the three returners.

"It's sort of a rebuilding thing, but with Peyton and those two other girls, I think they're going to be really good," Smith said. "We're hoping for a repeat, but it's going to be tough."

George Washington and Greenbrier East figure to be Capital's top regional competition.

Adrienne Arnold represents the top Patriots returner.

"She's our senior captain, so we're expecting big things out of her," GW Coach Nick Bias said.

Seniors Rowan Maher and Olivia Lim also return in hopes of a regional crown.

Additional teams competing in the region include Oak Hill, Princeton, Ripley, Riverside, Shady Spring, South Charleston and Woodrow Wilson.


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