The North Polk girls want to extend their streak of reaching state to 12 consecutive years and the Comet boys are going through a rebuilding phase heading into the 2018 cross country campaign.
The Comet girls have built a tremendous tradition under head cross country coach Steve Leach, and they want to take it to another level this fall.
North Polk must replace Amelia Lesher — the 16th-place individual finisher at state last year — along with longtime staple Sophie Blanchard off a Comet team that placed eighth in 3A at state and and won the Heart of Iowa Conference each of the past two years.
But the Comets return talented runners in seniors Emily Patterson and Kennedy Wendel, juniors Jessica Weis and Sophie Schaffer and sophomores Abi Zimmer and Addie Cooper.
“I expect our girls to field a very strong team again this season,” North Polk head cross country coach Steve Leach said. “We have a great mix of experience and youth.
“We will be attempting to go back-to-back-to-back as conference champions.”
Last year, Patterson placed sixth at the HOIC meet, 11th at the qualifying meet and 45th at state, where she ran her fastest 5-kilometer time of 20:03.6. Wendel finished seventh at conference, 27th at the qualifying meet and 78th at state, where she peaked with a time of 20:46.7.
Weis took 18th at conference and 32nd at the qualifying meet and her fastest time was 21:38. Schaffer came on late last season to take 16th at conference and then run a season-best time of 21:14.6 at state.
Zimmer came in ninth at the HOIC meet and 25th at the qualifying meet and her fastest time was 21:35. Cooper was unable to run at state last year, but she took 21st at the qualifying meet with a season-best time of 21:34.3.
Junior Abby Hill and sophomore Izzie Bergstrom will also compete for varsity time.
“At our first time trial, our top five runners were only six seconds apart,” Leach said. “I am looking forward to seeing if anyone emerges as a consistent number one runner, or if we have a lot of movement in our top five as the season progresses.”
Lucy Schaffer — the top runner for the girls’ middle school team last year — and Saydel transfer Aleah McBee will be the top incoming freshmen looking to help out at the varsity level.
“Our freshmen need to develop the stamina it takes to move from 2-mile races to the 5-kilometer,” Leach said. “We need to grow in the area of finishing races with a kick.”
The top meets for the girls in the first half of the season will be the Gilbert, Pella and Ballard Invitationals. Later, the Comets will focus on the HOIC and qualifying meets.
If the girls can improve on finishing races, the freshmen can adapt and everyone can stay healthy — the girls have a chance to field another special team.
“We would like to qualify for state again as a team and finish in the top seven,” Leach said. “That would be our best performance ever.”
On the boys’ side, North Polk must replace top runners Jacob Wilcox — an individual state qualifier — Will McCormick and Flint Vernon. The Comet boys will also have their lowest number of competitors in years.
“We have a very small team, so it will be imperative for our athletes to stay healthy,” Leach said. “We don’t have many runners with a season’s worth of experience as varsity competitors, so I am looking forward to seeing what kind of improvement our athletes can make from one meet to the next.”
Runners who competed at the varsity level for the boys last year were seniors Sam Carstensen, Noah Church and Seth Subra, and juniors Matt Crabb and Gabe Drake.
Carstensen’s best 5-kilometer time last year was 18:37 and he placed 40th at the HOIC meet and 62nd at the qualifying meet. Church peaked with a 19:24 effort at Nevada and Subra took 59th at conference, 74th at the qualifying meet and turned a season-best time of 19:09.
Freshman Nathan Crabb will be the top newcomer to the team.
“We need to work on pushing ourselves to our limits in practice so that a fast race pace is not a shock to our systems,” Leach said. “We are keeping our goals fairly simple this year. We would like to improve throughout the season.”
Leach said the Gilbert meet will be important for the boys.
“The opening meet will be a good opportunity for us to establish a starting point for each boy,” Leach said. “Hopefully, we can focus on improving from that point on.”
The Gilbert Invitational will be the opening meet for both teams. It takes place today on the ISU course in Ames, starting at 4:45 p.m.