WICHITA, Kan.—Carroll cross country teams have two state titles to defend heading into the 2011 season.
Last season the Carroll girls won their sixth title in school history and second in four years. That leaves the Carroll girls with a familiar feeling entering this season as they try to defend their title.
“We feel like the target is on our back,” Carroll girls coach Ran Nielsen said. “We’re going to start out like every year and say that we have to do our job. By doing our job, hopefully we will defend our championship.”
Carroll is off to a good start before stepping to any starting line as five All-State runners return this year. The Golden Eagles’ sixth-place runner at state last year Christian McCaulley will not be competing in her senior season for medical reasons.
That still leaves a solid front pack led by one of the state’s best girl distance runners in junior Kaelyn Balch. She is a two-time runner-up in Class 5A and an anchor for the Carroll girls.
“She sets a pretty good example for the other girls to give the extra effort,” Nielsen said. “She’s pretty vital to the program.”
Senior Kristin Powell and junior Katherine Dillard will also be leaders as upperclassmen this year. Junior Sarah Bullock and sophomores Mira Reichenberger and Courtney Jordan also return from last season’s state championship team.
That seventh spot on the varsity could go any number of ways for Carroll. Junior Riley Rathbun has the inside track as the alternate for the state team last year, but Nielsen wants to see competition for that spot from some new faces.
“I’m hoping that a freshman will step up,” Nielsen said. “I told them yesterday (that) our varsity isn’t set. We are going to have to earn that varsity spot.”
Nielsen has not had much of a chance to see what all his girls will bring to the table this year, but early on he likes what he sees from his team.
“They have the right attitude,” Nielsen said. “They know what it takes from what we did last year.”
The Carroll boys enter this season eyeing a third consecutive state title, which would make history if the Golden Eagles can accomplish the feat.
“We have never had a boys team at Carroll win three consecutive state championships in any sport so we are going for that little piece of history,” Carroll coach Cory Swords said.
That fact alone amps up the pressure and microscope on the Carroll boys cross country program this year, but so far the team is handling the high expectations well.
“They have been doing pretty well with it (the expectations),” Swords said. “We have just tried to be honest about it from the beginning. We realize that success brings its own kind of pressure.”
It is easy to absorb that pressure when Carroll returns as deep a team as the state can offer. It starts at the top with defending state champion and senior leader David Thor. He rolled to a title last season with a six-second win over Lansing’s Pete Lamoe.
Having a runner like Thor on the roster is a game changer for the program and all the athletes around him.
“He has been the unquestioned leader in workouts for a while now,” Swords said. “His accomplishments have helped broaden our younger guys understanding of the sport and what is possible. When you have a runner like David on the team it changes everyone's concept of what fast is.”
Outside of Thor, Carroll’s other runners are top notch as well. Removing Thor from the equation last year would still have yielded a second-place finish at the state meet and five of those six return to the team.
That list includes two juniors in third-place finisher at state James Hampton and All-State finisher Gage Garcia. Andy Schepis finished seventh overall and has graduated as the only loss from last season’s team. Juniors Henry Merth and Anthony Arion along with sophomore Nick Martin also return from the state championship team of last season.
Outside of Thor, Hampton and Garcia, no spot is safe on the varsity team as the Golden Eagles have a depth that is unmatched in the state.
Nick Martin and Matt Arnold are two sophomores that have broken the 18-minute barrier on the state course. Two freshmen that could make some noise are Hunter Nance and Seth Arnold. Nance has already hit 17:40 for a 5,000-meter road race according to Swords.
Then there is junior Logan Sageser. The junior missed his sophomore season due to injury, but as a freshman he was the No. 6 runner on the state championship team. Swords also said that senior transfer student Pete Sanchez and senior Jesse Lyle will bring talent to the table for Carroll.
Only two other schools have won three consecutive boys teams titles in cross country. Kapaun did it from 1979-81 and Great Bend did it from 1999-2001.
The Carroll boys begin their quest for a third state title at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 3 at Lake Afton.