CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Capital junior Peyton Panger raced this season without much competition save for one runner, University's Amelia Paladino, and Panger makes no secret she wishes to finish first at Saturday's Cross Country State Championship at Cabell Midland.
Panger, ranked No. 2 in girls Class AAA according to www.runwv.com, enters the meet with seven consecutive individual meet victories, not having faced top-ranked Paladino, the defending AAA state champion, this season. Entrenched in the second spot all season, Panger said finally she hopes to lay claim to No. 1, though it will require her best effort.
"It's no secret that she's a nationally ranked runner and the best runner in the state," Panger said of Paladino. "I'm just honored to be considered in that top five, and in order to close the distance, I would just say it's just whoever shows up to the line and has the best heart and really puts themselves in the race and realizes 'Hey, I can do this and I'm going to put my best effort into this.'"
Cougars Coach Jared Smith said Panger is prepared.
"Her mental state is very strong," he said. "She's in phenomenal shape. She's very humble. She wants to be in the mix. She obviously wants to go after Paladino. Paladino's such a strong runner. That's going to be very, very difficult, but I've seen this girl surpass many, many things."
In 2012, Panger finished eighth in 19:12 and figures to improve significantly upon that mark, though she said there's no set goal time.
"Whatever my best effort is and whatever it takes for me to be happy with my time and place is whatever I am going to run," she said.
While Paladino and Panger appear to be strides ahead of the field, in the team standings defending champion, top-ranked Morgantown lists the favorite.
Second-ranked Hurricane and No. 3 Winfield stand to have the greatest chance should anyone test the Mohigans. Morgantown graduated just one runner from a group of five who placed in the top 10 at last season's state championship.
"They're definitely the team to beat," Hurricane Coach Jason Henley said of Morgantown. "We're going to have to have our best possible day and probably a little bit of luck along the way to make that happen."
Hurricane boasts the talent and potential to hang, though the team's depth suffered a blow as one of the Redskins' top runners, 14th-ranked Joie Johnston, was recently diagnosed with stress fractures in both femurs. A junior, Johnston missed the regional championship, though Hurricane claimed the Region 4 title, and she will not race at the state meet either, Henley said.
Still, senior Tori Dent, ranked eighth, and the state's top-ranked freshman Anna Gordon (13th) lead a hopeful squad.
"Each one of them just needs to do their job, fulfill their roles on the team, and if everybody does that, we'll come away with a pretty good position," Henley said.