5A Season Preview

5A State returns to Rim Rock Farm after a 2-year hiatus
(Photo by Jessica Sprecker)

Girls Team Rankings

Boys Team Rankings

Individual 2021 Rankings

5A has long been dubbed the "state's toughest division" due to its high concentration of large private schools and suburban powerhouses. But, similar to how the Big 12 is regarded as the nation's toughest basketball league, it seems like the same team wins every year.

Yes, I'm comparing St Thomas Aquinas XC to KU Basketball.

Their boys have taken everyone's best shot. Bishop Carroll, Kapaun Mt Carmel, Mill Valley, De Soto, St James, and now Blue Valley Southwest have tried and failed to beat the state's cross country buzzsaw. After 8 titles in a row, who's to doubt the Saints now?

Well... actually there might be reason for doubt. The top nine boys teams in 5A have a returning team averaging 16:45-17:05. In the preseason, that's code for "it's anybody's game". Blue Valley Southwest has four returners under 17:00, but their 5th man has yet to break 18:00. Mill Valley has AJ Vega leading the way, but faces similar depth issues.

It may be Shawnee Heights' turn to take their shot at Aquinas this year, with the Thunderbirds returning Kory Sutton and Jackson Esquibel, both sub-16:00 athletes a year ago. They return 6 boys under 18:00. DeSoto is hungry after missing state in a loaded regional last year, and that fire can carry a team a long way. Lansing has a pack time of 63-seconds, which leads 5A. Their fifth man is at 17:30, which is the best in 5A coming into the season. That could be the difference-maker in a tight race like this.

And don't forget about the private schools: St James, Aquinas, Carroll, and Kapaun are all in that lead group and capable of making a run. Obviously Aquinas gets the benefit of the doubt with their history, but the other three are nearly identical with the exception of Aquinas front-runner Colby King being faster than the lead boys everywhere else.

While we're on the topic of lead boys, King is the #2 returner in all of 5A with a time of 15:32 last year at ODAC. Mill Valley's Vega is the only one ahead of him at 15:28. After that is the Shawnee Heights duo of Sutton (15:41) and Esquibel (15:49). Great Bend's Kaiden Esfeld is the only other returner that went under 16:00 last year at 15:54, doing it at state to get 3rd (with only seniors in front of him). Micah Paschke of Blue Valley SW and Kapaun Mt Carmel's Luke Brock also return after top-10 finishes at state last year.

For the girls, the Aquinas stranglehold isn't as tight. While the Saints do have 10 titles in the last 20 years, they have lost a few races, albeit to elite teams. Several of those losses, including last year's state title, have been to Mill Valley. The separation was only two points at the state championship, and their graduation losses were fairly even, keeping these two deadlocked. Great Bend, just five points behind the Saints in third, is also back for more. The Panthers lost captain Emilia Diaz, but retain the rest of their top-5. Seaman returns 6 of 7 in their bid for a title this year.

Last, and certainly not least, is St James. The Milesplit database has these girls as the top team entering the season. It may not make sense at first, since the Thunder lost three seniors from last year's 6th place team at state. However, their 2021 campaign was plagued with misfortune. A 2022 season with better luck could see the Thunder back at the top.

Individually, KC Piper senior Grace Hanson is the top returner, placing 2nd a year ago and running 18:11 at regionals. Behind her is Mill Valley's Charlotte Caldwell, who ran 18:42 last year to get 3rd at state as a freshman. Bethany Druse of Seaman and Sophie Landrum of DeSoto, 6th and 7th last year, should have good senior campaigns, as well as Emporia's Elizabeth Willhite. The only other 5A girl to break 19:00 last year was Blue Valley SW freshman (now sophomore) Isabella Ross.

However, of all those returners, even Piper's Hanson, none are the preseason favorite. This year's top runner is likely to be a tennis player. Salina Central's Katelyn Rupe was a dominant force on the track in the spring, and will split her time between cross country and tennis this fall. If her performance in May was any indication, Rupe will be in for a remarkable season this fall.