Aquinas boys, Carroll's Jackson highlight class 5A

Bishop Carroll junior Hope Jackson looks to repeat as class 5A girls state champion

It may sound like a broken record, but there's just no looking past a re-occurring fact of Kansas class 5A boys cross country.

St. Thomas Aquinas is the preseason favorite to win the state championship.

For more than a half dozen years, that's been the case. Over...and over...and over again.

During that time, the St. Thomas Aquinas boys have held true to the lofty standing, and usually in convincing fashion. Last year's 40-point win over Maize South marked six titles in a row, and the ninth overall for the school's boys team.

Not only does Aquinas come out on top of MileSplit's preseason virtual meet in class 5A, but they may be more dominating than ever. The boys' squad is nearly a 70-point favorite over DeSoto to make it seven straight class 5A titles.

So far, class 5A cross country has seen almost no impact from schools choosing to forego the Fall athletic season. As of August 31, only three class 5A schools are sitting out the Fall, and none of those schools - or individuals from those teams -- are considered a factor at the state level. The early opt-outs leave class 5A with 33 teams competing this season.

St. Thomas Aquinas returns three of their top five, and four of seven, from last year's winning team. That's actually more experience than in recent years, when it was common for the Saints to return just two or three scorers. Plus, St. Thomas Aquinas is likely to see the return of senior Tommy Hazen, who was tearing up the state scene as a sophomore before sitting out much of his junior year with injury.

Other top returners for St. Thomas Aquinas this year include juniors Ashton Higgerson (seventh at state last year), Logan Seger (ninth) and Connor Klocke (26th).

DeSoto leads the list of pursuers, headed by senior Carson Sturdy (tenth at state last year) and junior Kyle Newberry. Last year's state runner-up - Maize South - gets back senior Elijah Clark and junior Vaughn Decker.

The darkhorse picks for a podium spot are Blue Valley Southwest, Andover and St. James Academy.

Among class 5A individuals, Emporia's Treyson True was the state runner-up in 2019 and the leading contender to win the state title this season. True not only has progressed through the ranks, he also tends to run really well at Rim Rock Farm - annually the site of the state meet. He was third in the seven-state Rim Rock Classic last September, and the runner-up at state in early November.

True also should be well-seasoned by the time the state meet rolls around with a schedule that likely will pit him several times against Manhattan's Daniel Harkin, the 2019 Kansas Gatorade Runner of the Year. Both compete in the Centennial League. Manhattan's boys also are the preseason favorite to win the class 6A crown, providing plenty of push as True gears for his senior season.

Other top contenders in class 5A boys this season include DeSoto's Sturdy, Bishop Carroll junior Carson McEachern, Kapaun-Mt. Carmel senior Erik Enriquez, Shawnee Heights sophomore Kory Sutton, and Topeka West's Lenny Njoroge. And, naturally, anybody wearing a St. Thomas Aquinas uniform.

Twelve of the 20 medalists from last year's state meet will be back in the class 5A boys' division.

In class 5A girls, Bishop Carroll junior Hope Jackson returns to defend the state championship she won a year ago. Jackson emerged as the dominating female distance runner in Kansas a year ago, and was the prohibitive favorite to win a pair of track and field titles last spring, before COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 season.

But she faces a division that may - in whole - have the strongest group of girls distance runners. Blue Valley Southwest senior Gigi Loffredo was the state runner-up in 2018, and Maize South senior Alexa Rios was third in 2019. Kapaun Mt. Carmel sophomore Addie Curtis (seventh at state last year) is the newest young lion in the division, and Blue Valley Southwest senior Brinn Wilson (ninth) and Maize junior Zoie Ecord (tenth) are in the mix, too.

Fourteen of the 20 medalists from last year's state meet are expected back this season.

With Loffredo and Wilson, Blue Valley Southwest has the best 1-2 punch in class 5A girls. It could finally lead that squad to the state championship: they were the runner-up in 2017 in class 6A, runner-up last year in 5A, and fourth place in 5A in 2018.

But it would appear that the team chase in class 5A girls is a free-for-all, with St. Thomas Aquinas, Maize South and Great Bend emerging as preseason contenders.

Aquinas, which has won six of the past eight class 5A titles, was fourth last year, but brings back a solid group in seniors Ellie Ward and Kate Marshall; and junior Alexis Huddin.

In addition to Rios, Maize South brings back junior Britton Kelly and sophomore Bowi Sargent. And Great Bend gets back junior Emilia Diaz (12th at state last year) and sophomore Haley McCormick.

Each of the contenders in class 5A girls seems to have solid upfront runners, but none has yet to show it has the depth to win the title. That's the biggest key for the teams that hope to bring home the big gold trophy in late October.