Standout runners shoot for healthy comebacks

Herald File photo
Northeast Dubois’ Maddy Laux, left, and Jasper’s Grace Mehringer both ran on semistate-qualifying teams as freshmen last season, with Mehringer’s Wildcat squad also reaching the state finals and placing 24th. While the Jeeps are seeking new leaders, the Cats return nearly their whole lineup as they shoot to defend last year’s sectional title.

Herald Sports Writer

Scouting this year’s area girls cross country teams:

Jasper Wildcats

Last year
Big Eight Conference and sectional champions; second at regional, sixth at semistate and 24th at state finals.
Returning runners
Hannah Welsh, Jr. (individual sectional champion)
Rachael Welsh, Jr.
Tara Cassidy, Soph. (individual Big Eight champion)
Grace Mehringer, Soph.
Abby Simone, Soph.
Noelle Weyer, Soph.
Key newcomers
Madeline Hurst, Sr.
Luci Hulsman, Jr.
Chloe Berger, Soph.
Notable: It’s tough to imagine the Wildcats improving on a 2013 campaign that included the team’s first sectional championship in nearly 10 years and an appearance at the state finals, but the Cats have the roster to do just that. Six of Jasper’s top seven runners return, including reigning sectional champ Hannah Welsh, the Cats’ top runner for most of the season before limping through the postseason with two stress fractures in her foot. She has returned stronger after missing all of the track season and has added “a ton of strength training,” coach Kevin Schipp said. Cassidy, who pushed Welsh as the No. 1 runner at times last season, also returns after a “great summer (of) training,” Schipp said.
Hurst, in her first season running cross country, has emerged as a team leader and is routinely competing with the top six runners. The Cats also hope to see a full season from Hulsman, who was Jasper’s No. 3 runner in 2012 as a freshman, but struggled with mono all of last season.
Quotable: “They seem really hungry,” Schipp said of his runners. “The expectations are the same — to move on to state — but hopefully improve on what we did, which will be hard to do. But they are definitely hungry.”

Herald File Photo
Lauren Meyer, left, and Casey Lamb are among six veteran runners back for Southridge.

Southridge Raiders

Last year
Third at Pocket Athletic Conference meet; fourth at sectional and eighth at regional.
Returning runners
Sidney Eckert, Sr.
Aubrey Main, Sr. (third at sectional; individual semistate qualifier)
Casey Lamb, Jr. (individual semistate qualifier)
Brittany Tretter, Jr.
Emily Eckert, Soph.
Lauren Meyer, Soph. (individual semistate qualifier)
Key newcomers
Jill Kippenbrock, Fr.
Notable: Like their male counterparts, the Raiders’ numbers will not aid them through the season. Southridge carries a roster with just seven runners but returns everyone from last year’s squad.
Main, Lamb and Meyer are coming off successful track seasons, particularly Main, who placed 18th and 20th in the high jump and 400-meter dash, respectively, at the state finals. Meyer and Lamb were key distance cogs for Southridge’s track team, and Raider coach Leslie Denu said they transferred their success from the spring into productive summers.
Emily Eckert also returns, as well as Tretter, who is finally fully recovered from a stress fracture in her foot from her freshman season. Kippenbrock is the team’s lone freshman and newcomer.
Quotable: “Last year ... we had three girls go to semistate so I definitely think it’s possible,” Denu said of the prospect of Raider runners making a tournament push. “If we can keep our top five healthy and ready for competition, we’ll definitely be able to have a successful postseason.”

Forest Park Rangers

Last year
Second at Pocket Athletic Conference meet; third at sectional, fifth at regional and 16th at semistate.
Returning runners
Sabrina Becher, Jr.
Emma Fraze, Jr.
Sarah Pund, Soph.
Amy Troesch, Soph. (seventh at sectional)
Key newcomers
Payton Luebbehusen, Jr.
Alyssa Gogel, Soph.
Elisabeth Miller, Fr.
Notable: The offseason hasn’t been kind to Philip Wolf and the Rangers. Besides graduating two varsity girls, Troesch suffered a broken leg while on vacation during the summer, and Wolf said he’s planning as if she’ll miss the entire season. Pund, the Rangers’ No. 2 runner last season, missed most of track in the spring with a hip injury and is easing back into things after a four-month absence from running.
That leaves a group of young runners who will be asked to take on a larger responsibility. Wolf said Fraze has emerged to lead the group in Troesch and Pund’s absence, and Miller is quickly establishing herself as one of the top girls. Wolf is also expecting Luebbehusen to return to form after being sidelined all of last year with a calf injury.
With the injury bug hopefully behind them, now all the Rangers have to do is fight through the actual season.
Quotable: “We’ve got to take advantage of the moment and try to prove ourselves by working hard day in and day out,” Wolf said. “We don’t have to win to still win, you know. And that’s what I’m pushing for.”

Northeast Dubois Jeeps

Last year
Blue Chip Conference champions; second at sectional, fourth at regional and 12th at semistate.
Returning runners
Ashton Knies, Sr.
Kelli Reutman, Sr.
Hannah Beckman, Soph.
Jessica Kahle, Soph.
Maddie Laux, Soph.
Key newcomers
Paige Andrews, Fr.
Notable: First the bad news: the Jeeps enter the season without four seniors who contributed to varsity last season, including their top runner in Latesha Merkel, as well as another varsity performer who decided not to run this season.
The good news, though, is that many of those returning have at least some varsity experience. Knies, Kahle, Laux and Beckman all ran at semistate, and though Reutman was a scratch because of an injury, she would have been in the mix as well.
What’s left is the type of roster coach Vic Betz hasn’t dealt with in recent years. Northeast Dubois is young and small with just nine runners. Kahle, whose older brother Jace runs for the boys team, has emerged as the team’s top runner from a talented sophomore class. Knies, who splits time between cross country and soccer, and Reutman look to add some experience, and Andrews is the lone newcomer who seems to have secured a spot with the top group, Betz said. She’s fresh, but Betz observed “she definitely looks like a runner.”
Betz also noted that while it’s unclear if Northeast Dubois can achieve its usual conference competitiveness, his team’s work ethic has been indisputable.
Quotable: “The girls are working hard,” Betz said. “I never, never have to question that.
“We’ve had a long winning streak in the conference so we’d like to win the conference this year. Hopefully during the season we’ll get better, and that’s always our goal: to improve one meet at a time.”

Heritage Hills Patriots

Last year
Did not place at Pocket Athletic Conference meet or sectional
Returning runners
Sienna Crews, Sr.
Hope Davis, Jr.
Key newcomers
Vanessa Rodriguez, Jr.
Symantha Heathman, Soph.
Reagan Lashley, Soph.
Notable: The Patriots have yet to run in a meet, but already they’ve made significant strides from last season. With five runners, Heritage Hills can actually field a team after a tiny roster was decimated by injuries in 2013. Only two runners competed at last season’s sectional, and both of those girls graduated.
The most optimism comes with the return of Crews, who missed most of last season with stress fractures in her feet. The two-time sectional champion finished 18th in the state as a sophomore and capped her junior track season with a 19th-place finish in the 1,600-meter run. She’s returned healthy after the Patriot coaches “basically told her mom to tie her down and take some time off before summer training,” assistant coach Gary Ayer Jr. joked.
Davis is the only other returner, but even she missed time with an injury as well. Lashley returns to running for the first time since middle school, and Rodriguez and Heathman are brand new to the sport.
Quotable: “Expectations will be for each one of them to improve as the season goes on,” Patriot coach Kurt Denning said. “We’ve got a lot of first-time runners who don’t know their capabilities, and personally I don’t know what their capabilities are either.
“We’ve talked to them and they realize it takes five to score. I don’t think there was one meet last year where I had a full team run ... (having five runners) is better than nothing.”

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