If you enjoy a good thrill-ride on the cross country course, you need not look much further than Kansas' class 5A division. It's a group that's just dripping with great talent and interesting storylines heading into the 2018 season.
For starters, the defending individual state champions - St. Thomas Aquinas seniors Ethan Marshall and Olivia Sovereign - have a chance to put a huge stamp on a tradition-rich program that has won a combined 17 state titles in the last 24 years.
Marshall capped a remarkable season last year, winning at Rim Rock Farm in a time of 15:38. Marshall became the fifth individual state champion from St. Thomas Aquinas, setting him up this year to become the first-ever two-time state champion from the school.
Sovereign already has achieved that distinction, winning her second consecutive title last year. She'll be looking to extend her school-best two state titles to three this season. Sovereign's time of 17:44.61 at the Nike Heartland Regional meet last November was the fastest time by a Kansas girl in 2017.
But this is not an easy division, and neither Marshall nor Sovereign are a sure bet for state titles.
On the girls' side, St. James Academy - which won its' school's first-ever state championship last year - brings back the second, third and fourth place finishers from last year's state cross country meet.
Junior Sarah Murrow (second last year), was also the state runner-up in the 1600 and 3200 on the track, beating Sovereign in the 1600.
Junior Katie Moore (third last year) was the state champion in the 400 and runner-up in the 800. You don't want to challenge Moore's kick at the end of a race.
Sophomore Mary O'Connor (fourth last year) was the top freshman in class 5A last year, running a clutch race at the state meet to key St. James' narrow five-point win over rival Mill Valley.
In fact, eight of the top 10 girls, and 14 of the top 20, return from last year's state meet, which means that state medals are not going to come easy for anyone.
That's also the case in the boys' division where Marshall should face a stiff challenge from senior Jack Moore of St. James Academy (third last year), teammate Reece Jones (fifth last year) and Asher Moen of Andover (sixth). There are seven boys from last year's top 10 that are back this year, as well as 14 of the top 20.
Connor Griffith of Great Bend is an interesting one to watch. As a freshman, he clocked 16:05 at state for eighth place on the tough Rim Rock Farm course, after having previously finished second at the Rim Rock Classic blue division earlier in the year. In other words, Rim Rock feels pretty comfortable to Griffith.
Marshall, though, is the Top Dog in this division, having run 15:14 at the Nike Heartland Regionals in November last year. He also leads the division's best team entering the season - St. Thomas Aquinas returns four of the seven runners who captured the school's fourth consecutive state championship last year.
If Aquinas' boys can win the team title again this year, their five straight wins would match the longest winning streak ever in class 5A - tying Bishop Carroll (2009-2013). It would also be St. Thomas Aquinas' ninth state title for the boys program, equaling the number of titles that its' girls' program has won.
It appears as though the rest of the class 5A field has some catching up to do if it hopes to deny St. Thomas Aquinas. Mill Valley - which was just 11 points behind in second place last year - is expected to be moved to class 6A when the state's new classifications come out in late September.
That means that Andover, which returns its top three runners but was 47 points behind St. Thomas Aquinas last year, could be St. Thomas Aquinas' main challenger this year. Andover is the type of team that can pull the upset; the team has run well at the state meet the last two years - finishing third last year - and has a solid core of experienced runners leading the way this season.
Andover Central, which was the runner-up in class 4A a year ago, will likely make the jump to class 5A in the state's new classifications, and could also be a threat to Aquinas. Andover Central returns four of its top five runners from a year ago.
St. James Academy and Great Bend are strong contenders for a spot on the podium, but will have to show it can field strong fourth and fifth runners before it will have a legitimate shot at the state title.
Mill Valley's likely move to 6A will also deny cross country fans the excitement of a titanic rematch between the Jaguars and St. James Academy.
A year ago, Mill Valley put its five runners in the top 14, but St. James' had five in the top 20, and its' 2-3-4 finish was enough to score a five-point victory. Both teams have remarkable talent up and down the roster, and they run in vicious packs.
It was the first-ever state cross country championship for St. James, which opened in 2005. That means that, for the first time, the squad will get a chance to defend a state cross country title.
A year ago, the Thunder was undefeated against teams from Kansas and Missouri, amassing a record of 78-0. In addition to Murrow, Moore and O'Connor, the squad returns junior Hannah Robinson from last year's team. St. James has a stable of underclassmen who shined most recently at the state track and field championships where the squad had state championship or state runner-up performances at every distance from 400 to 3200, as well as the 4 X 400 and 4 X 800 relays.
St. Thomas Aquinas' girls become the primary challenger to St. James, led by Sovereign and juniors Allison Strathman and Katie Muckerman; and seniors Emily Gunderman and Kaitlin Dare. Aquinas is not used to being in the role of underdog, so it will be interesting to see how this one plays out.
Andover Central's girls were also the runner-up in class 4A last year, and they'll bring a solid team to class 5A this year. They return all seven runners from last year's state team, including seniors Cailan Steward, Alexandra Schumann, Devin Gerber and Hannah Wiebe.