CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The title of top high school boys runner passed from the campus of Cabell Midland to George Washington with the graduation of Jacob Burcham, with both programs anticipating solid seasons this fall.
Patriots senior Matt Brafford enters the season as the state's No. 1 boys AAA harrier following the graduation of Burcham, the three-time state champion. Brafford, last season's individual runner-up, hopes his GW teammates can join him on the podium this year, while the Knights look to rebuild by replacing six of last year's seven runners at the state meet.
"I've been kind of shadowed for three years with Jacob here and this year I really feel is the year I can burst out of that shadow and just shine for the other people in the nation to see me," Brafford said, indicating he ultimately hopes to reach the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in San Diego. "Hopefully, this year I can get the national spotlight on me and go to nationals in California. That's my main goal."
After years of chasing Burcham, GW Coach Nick Bias said Brafford has accepted his new role as the field's pacesetter.
"I think he's embraced it and I think most people kind of realize he's the guy everybody's targeting now," Bias said.
The Patriots finished 11th at last year's state meet, but return many pieces, in addition to Brafford, that should vault GW higher into the final standings.
Senior Ryan Humphrey and junior Chad Hollandsworth return, though it is not expected Hollandsworth will race at full form until midseason as he battles mononucleosis. Soccer-players-turned-runners Will Walker and Connor McKinney will join the efforts as the Patriots challenge for the Class AAA Region III title, as will South Charleston transfer Cai Carena.
"I think if we can run to our full potential, we can win regionals on the boys side," Bias said.
Capital and 10th-ranked Greenbrier East, according to runwv.com, will battle GW for the team crown, while Spartans senior Levi Snedegar poses Brafford's most legitimate individual threat, entering the season ranked third-best in the state.
Cougars Coach Jared Smith said his squad is ready to contend for the championship.
"My boys are loaded," Smith said. "We have a great boys team, probably the best that's ever been at Capital.
"I would make a bold statement that I am not going to put us out of the mix for going for that state title. We're really strong. I'm a good eight deep with strong runners and I'm excited. I'm extremely excited about my boys."
Senior Marshall Sharp and junior Michael Ruhnke will lead the Cougars. Freshman Sam Thomas and junior Raymond Kryzak will figure prominently for Capital, too, Smith said.
Other teams competing in the region include Oak Hill, Princeton, Ripley, Riverside, Shady Spring, South Charleston and Woodrow Wilson.
Class AAA Region IV
Midland graduated five members, including Burcham, from its state championship team and lost another in sophomore Andrew Short to injury, though the Knights are listed second in the preseason rankings.
"We had some good depth," Coach Chris Parsons said of last year's Midland squad. "We went pretty deep, because I know we could have fielded a second team and been competitive at any meet we went to.
"We've got probably eight runners that are within 15 seconds of each other."
Sophomore Nick Salmons represents the lone returner from the state champ squad as Short, a fellow sophomore, was lost to injury. Short will miss the entire season after having surgery to both calves to relieve symptoms from compartment syndrome. He is expected to return for the spring track season.
With 46 runners on the team, the Knights have plenty of options to reload, Parsons said.