CLASS 4A PREVIEW: Uncertainty May Be the Only Certainty Heading Into 2017 Season

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As much I'd like to write everything you need to know heading into the 4A cross country season, it feels more right to say this: Check back in late September.

Yep, on or about September 20, the enrollment figures for Kansas High Schools will be taken, potentially setting off a tremor in the state's sports scene. In fact, it did just that last year in cross country when class 5A contenders Maize South and Andover Central were moved down to 4A - immediately making them heavy favorites for state crowns.


Maize South delivered by sweeping the boys and girls state titles in class 4A, while Andover Central was second in the girls division, and third in the boys' division.


The enrollment count was agonizingly close. Maize South was just one student short of staying in class 5A, while Andover Central was just five students short of remaining a 5A school.


In the finicky world of enrollment counts, we have no idea where these two schools will actually end up late in the 2017 season. Suffice it to say that they are excellent cross country programs that bring back the bulk of last year's teams.


Maize South's girls have four of their top 6 returning, while Andover Central brings back four of their top 5. Both squads are still young; most of their varsity performers were either freshmen or sophomores last year.


Both Maize South's and Andover Central's boys return 4 of their top 5 varsity runners, though each loses their No. 1 runner from a year ago.


The state's best runner - at least by time - may be Smoky Valley's Calvin Shannon, who clocked a PR of 15:27 last year. He was third in the class 4A state cross country championships last year, but was noticeably absent at the track and field championships last spring - we assume it was because of injury.


Lakelin Conrad of Wichita Collegiate is the defending 4A state champion, and has proven to be a tiger on the cross country course. He also won the class 3A state cross country title as a freshman in 2014, and  won the boys Blue Division of the Rim Rock Classic last fall, beating a tough field that included the state's best runners from 4A down to 1A. He enters the 2017 season as the guy to beat in class 4A.


He will be challenged, however. Assuming Shannon is back this fall, other top contenders for the 4A boys title include Jack Thomas of Scott Community, just a junior who was eighth at state cross country last year and state runner-up in the 3200 on the track; Mason Strader of Holton, a senior who was the state runner-up at 1600 meters on the track; and Bryce Merriman of Maize South, a senior who was third in the 1600 meters last spring.


Avery Stuever of Circle was ninth at the state cross county meet last year, and leads a team that could be the biggest threat to Maize South's repeat bid.


In the 4A girls division, sophomore Aimee Davis of Clearwater is the heads-on favorite to win the individual title this season. She was the state runner-up a year ago, trailing only Kansas megastar Cailie Logue of Girard, who became just the seventh Kansas athlete ever to win four cross country titles.


Davis did not run the state track meet last spring, so it's been awhile since we've seen her lace up the racing shoes. She was clear and away the best among the rest in class 4A cross country, and in fact was one of the top 5 runners in all classifications for much of last year.


She was one of five freshmen who finished in the top 10 at the 4A state meet in 2016. The others include Renee Trout of Independence (third); Katie Wagner of Maize South (fifth); Kate Molitor of Maize South (ninth); and Brooke Allen of Prairie View (tenth).


Other key returners in class 4A girls include junior Devin Gerber of Andover Central (eighth at state cross country); senior Hannah Honeyman of Santa Fe Trail (an eight-time state medalist in cross country and track and field); and Destini Eskridge of Maize South (fourth place in the 1600 and 3200 at the track and field championships).


Should they remain in class 4A, Maize South would run this season as the prohibitive favorite to repeat as boys and girls state champions. They would even stand a chance of challenging St. Thomas Aquinas should they be moved to class 5A. Circle's boys and Andover Central's girls would likely be their closest pursuers in class 4A.