CLASS 2A CROSS COUNTRY: Bennington's Girls Loaded Again; Can Yates Center's Boys Take the Next Step?

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If the Bennington High girls cross country team has intentions of duplicating one of their school's best-ever stretches in the sport, they are in a pretty nice position to do that.

The Bulldogs, let's just say, are loaded entering the 2017 cross country season. It makes the Bennington girls an overwhelming favorite to successfully defend the 2A girls title they won a year ago.

It would also be the fifth state title in the school's history, putting them one step closer to matching a historic run from 2006 through 2009 when Bennington won three state titles in four years (they also went back-to-back in 2006 and 2007).

And did we mention that Bennginton is loaded? Ah, yes, they are. Last year's state runner-up Kya Johnson is Class 2A's top returner, and one of her top competitors for this year's individual title not only comes from her own team - it also comes from her own home.

Halle Johnson of Bennington was 11th at the state cross country meet last year, but she dominated class 2A track and field this past spring. Halle Johnson swept the 800, 1600 and 3200 in track, and ran a leg on Bennington's winning 4 X 800 meter relay team.

Kya Johnson was the class 2A state cross country champion as a freshman in 2015.

If that 1-2 punch isn't good enough, consider this: Bennington returns its entire top 5 from last year's state champion team.

The Bulldogs' strength overshadows what is a very solid division, however. Eight of the top 10, and 15 of the top 20 from last year's class 2A state meet are back for another go.

Those returners include Erin Topham of Berean Academy (fourth in cross country last year), and Lincoln's Aubry Donley (fifth last year). Like the Johnson sisters, Trego Community junior Helen Giefer and sophomore Sybil Giefer make up a pretty good 1-2 punch that could provide some interesting battles when the two pairs of sisters get together on the course.

One runner I hope we get to see in cross country this season is Valley Height's Samantha Vermetten. As a freshman in track and field, Vermetten was the runner-up to Halle Johnson in the 800, 1600 and 3200. She didn't run cross country last year, but she would definitely heighten the strength of this classification and could certainly challenge any of the top returners for the 2A girls state title.

Though they're a longshot for the 2A girls team title, Maranatha Academy and Kiowa County have the inside track on the other two podium spots entering the 2017 season.

In class 2A boys, the state got a good look at a budding superstar last year in Yates Center's Hadley Splechter. He was the state runner-up in cross country as a sophomore, and then validated that strong finish by winning the 1600 and 3200 on the track in the spring. He set the class 2A state record in winning the 1600 in 4:21.70, erasing the mark set one year earlier by Olpe superstar Kyler True.

Splechter is now a junior, and after watching his attacking style on the track, it's hard to see anyone taking him down in cross country.

Those with a chance, however, may just be wearing the same uniform. Senior teammates Colin Bedell and Jordan Smith were fourth and seventh at state cross country last year. Smith was also a medalist in the 1600 and 3200 on the track.

The trio make Yates Center a preseason favorite for the 2A team title, though Bennington's boys just may have the depth to deny the Wildcats. Though Yates Center returns its entire 2016 team, there is a deep drop from their top three runners to the next two, giving Bennington a chance to put a pack together and steal the title. That's probably going to be the storyline at the 2A championships in October.

Yates Center has never won an individual or team title in boys cross country, so the Wildcats are also shooting for a bit of school history this season.

Other top boys returners in class 2A include Ethan Thompson of Meade (third at state cross country, and fourth in both the 1600 and 3200 on the track); Isaiah Barrera of Stanton County (ninth at state cross); and Henry Nelson of Bishop-Seabury (10th at state).