There will be a lot of familiarity in place when the best in Kansas class 3A cross country get together this season.
In the girls' division, 18 of the top 20 from last year's
state meet are back, including three individuals who have won five state titles
either in cross country or on the track the past three years.
And the top five boys finishers from last year's state meet are back to do battle again, including the past two cross country state champions in class 3A.
Hannah Burks of Beloit became the dominant force in cross country a year ago, winning the state title by nearly a minute over her sister and teammate, Hayley Burks. Both of the Burks' girls are back for their junior year.
They'll have to contend with Hiawatha's Elizabeth Kettler, a two-time state champion in the 3200 meter run, who led Hiawatha to the school's first-ever team title a year ago. Kettler has also been a state runner-up in cross country (2016) and the 3200 meter run (2018).
Wellsville's Paige McDaniel has not yet emerged as a top cross country runner, but she's certainly got the mettle. In May, McDaniel won the 800 and 1600 titles at the state track and field championships. She was 17th in cross country a year ago; question is, will her success on the track translate to the grass this season?
Caroline Giles of Minneapolis (third at state last year) and Lexi Kats of Norton (fourth) return this year. Keep your eyes also on Lara Murdock of Colby, who like McDaniel has not yet excelled in cross country, but was a force on the track last spring - finishing second in the 1600 and third in the 800.
Kettler's Hiawatha team is the preseason favorite to win the
team title, returning their top four runners from a year ago and six of the top
seven, including sophomore Kate Madsen (who has the fourth best returning time
for 2018) and senior Mary Rosa. Scott Community, last year's runner-up, loses
three of their top five runners, and may be moving up to class 4A when the Kansas State High School Activities Association re-aligns its six divisions this Fall.
That probably leaves Thomas More Prep-Marian as the team most likely to challenge Hiawatha for the team title. TMP-Marian placed third a year ago, and the squad also returns its top four to a team that was known for running in a tight pack. Senior Julia Werth should lead TMP's challenge this year.
Sabetha - led by senior Megan Meyer and sophomore Haddie Lukert - enter the season as a strong podium contender. Fredonia, Beloit and Scott Community will need some help from third through fifth runners, but have an outside shot at bringing home state hardware.
Scott Community senior Jack Thomas beat a very good field to the finish at last year's class 3A boys state championships, clocking an impressive 16:04 to win at Rim Rock Farm. Eight runners ran 17:00 or better on the hilly course.
Pearce and fellow senior teammate Teagan Flanagan (second at state last year) are strong contenders for the state title. Riley County's Brett Kulp, also a senior, was third at state last year and has risen gradually through the ranks of the state's best.
There's still a question about Thomas entering the season,
however. He missed the state track and field championships last May -
presumably because of injury - and it won't be known for a few weeks yet if
he's going to run this season and will be back to his previous form. And even if he's healthy, Scott Community may be moving to class 4A in KSHSAA's new six-division setup.
Justin Hodge of Hiawatha, who was fifth at the state meet last year, is another contender for the individual title, and he'll certainly be a key part of his school's team, which is the early favorite for the state title.
Hiawatha has five runners returning who have run better than 18:00 in cross country, probably the only school in class 3A right now that seems to have a solid 1 through 5. Sabetha and Central Heights seem to have three runners, but each will need to develop the four and five positions to be serious state title contenders.
Scott Community and Halstead have an outside shot at the podium, but also need to develop their depth as the season goes along.
One runner I wish we could see in cross country is Riverton senior Joshua Rutledge. He placed second in the 1600 and 3200 at the state track and field meet, but his school does not have a cross country program. This division already is ripe with talent, so why not add one more?