By KEVIN EIS
Spencerville High School will officially be the new home for area Division III cross country district hopefuls on Saturday, as 43 boys and 42 girls teams from around northwest Ohio will compete for a shot at the regional level during the Spencerville D-III district cross country.
Historically held at Ottawa Park in two separate boys and girls divisions, this inaugural district meet at the new location will now be split into three divisions, with a boys and girls race in each.
Starting times for this all-inclusive northwest Ohio competition are as follows: Girls District 1 (noon); girls District 2 (12:40 p.m.); girls District 3 (1:20 p.m.); boys District 1 (2 p.m.); boys District 2 (2:40 p.m.); boys District 3 (3:20 p.m.).
While the top-four placing teams and 16 individuals not on an advancing squad are qualified for regionals in all races, boys and girls from District 1 and District 2 will move on to the next stop at Tiffin. However, boys teams and individuals from District 3 will move on to Youngstown as the District 3 girls will then travel to the Troy Regional en route to the ultimate goal of the state meet at National Trial Raceway near Hebron.
In determining the district breakdowns, teams were ranked according to coach ballots before selecting their desired race, beginning with the top-ranked packs.
Seeded fourth and highlighting the area schools in the first race of the day is Liberty Center, which is a week removed from winning its third consecutive NWOAL title behind individual champion and LC freshman Brittany Atkinson.
Ranked third in the state D-III coaches' polls, LC is also in the running for its fourth district crown in as many years, but will have to do so against stiff competition in unfamiliar territory against the likes of (in order of rank) two-seed Liberty-Benton, Kalida, Bluffton, Pandora-Gilboa, Delta, New Bremen, Parkway, Allen East, Perry, St. Johns, Genoa, Patrick Henry and Riverdale.
"I think we've got a good shot at it," commented LC mentor Tim Atkinson. "We're going to be facing some very good teams, specifically Liberty-Benton. They're a state-ranked, very solid team. We did face them earlier in the year at the Lakota Invitational and beat them, but they've gotten a lot better since then. But so have we … I think we're capable of going in there and getting our fourth title, but we're going to have to perform well."
After running the 5K league course in a time of 18:17, the LC head coach also believes his freshman standout, and daughter, holds a very good chance of an individual district crown as well.
"Brittany's running really, really well right now," he noted. "She will have to face some good competition. There's the Bluffton girl, Hannah Chapel-Dick, and she's a high-quality runner too. But I feel right now that Brittney's on top of her game, and she's performing very well as a freshman."
As for the team, Atkinson believes they are motivated and ready to face the field on Saturday and whatever lies beyond, which possibly includes a regional showdown at Tiffin against top-ranked state powerhouse Coldwater.
"They're motivated, they're inspired and they're anxious to get on that course and see what it's about," said the LC mentor of his girls pack. "They will be feeding into the Tiffin Regional and facing number-one Coldwater, and they're excited about that."
But Atkinson's boys squad won't have to wait for a clash with Coldwater, as the two teams will meet in Saturday's District 1 race. In addition to Coldwater - ranked second in the state - the LC boys will compete against Pettisville, Ayersville, GMC three-time champion Fairview, Lima Central Catholic, perennial district powerhouse Hilltop, Spencerville, Antwerp, Marion Local , Edgerton, Holgate, Patrick Henry, Evergreen and Pandora-Gilboa.
"We were seeded seventh, so we were shuffled into the Tiffin Regional, which I think is a good choice for us," commented Atkinson, whose boys also ran their way to a regional berth via runners-up status a year ago at Ottawa. "We're familiar with that course versus Youngstown … we've never been to Youngstown and we're not familiar with that course, so I think that worked out very well for us.
"We're in a very tough district with Coldwater, which is one of the top teams in the state, both with boys and girls, so it will be a tough task," he added. "We just want to get out and get to the next level, and I think we're capable of that if we perform at our best."
GMC runner-up and 12th-seeded Fairview leads the pack of local schools competing in the girls District 2 event. The Lady Apaches ran their way to a district title last season, and return seniors Samantha Rhodes, Olivia Breininger and Kathleen Walsh to the mix. Also leading the Black-and-Gold are junior Krysten King, sophomore Desiree Ankney and freshman Malin Adams.
Fairview just missed its fourth straight GMC title in a close race with champion Tinora, prompting first-year head coach Katrina Tonneas to choose her race with strategy in mind.
"To be quite honest, we've been chasing Tinora all year so I wanted to stay away from running against them again," she explained. "They had already told me when I got the phone call what race they had picked, so I was picking to stay away from them. I think mentally that was smart for my girls to get a break and not see them one more time because they have some tough girls that we've been seeing all season long. That was my main motivation."
However, the Lady Apaches are now facing Coldwater, Spencerville, Fort Recovery and Fayette in the seeding above it. Rounding out District 2 below Fairview will be Ayersville - led by GMC individual champion Hannah McKibben - Wayne Trace, Archbold, Pettisville, Holgate, Edgerton, Waynesfield-Goshen, Montpelier and Hilltop.
Wanting to remain in a position to return to familiar territory at Tiffin, the Fairview coach is by no means lacking knowledge of the competition.
"I know it's going to be tough, and I knew Liberty-Benton and Liberty Center were in the other race," Tonneas reasoned. "They had told me their places as well. Not having had experience, I wanted to go to Tiffin. I do think we're going to see some good competition either way, and our girls are going to have to run their very best to make it out."
Paced by Sam Lehman, Devin Clausen, Cameron Harris, Jake Mahnke and Derek Moore, 23rd-seeded Tinora will hit the course in the District 2 boys race against the likes of two-seed Minster, St. Henry, Crestview, Lincolnview, Fayette, Parkway, Wayne Trace, New Knoxville, Ottoville, Allen East, Bluffton, Riverdale and Montpelier.
Fielding a very young and inexperienced varsity team, Tinora will represent the area as the number-eight seed in the girls District 3 contest. Sandwiched in between third-seeded Minster and nine-seed Lima Central Catholic as the top-three teams in the final girls race of the day, first-year mentor Lisa Maxwell knows her girls will need to be at their best in order to advance to Troy.
"Minster's going to walk away with it, I believe," Maxwell admitted. "They have a very strong team, and they always have a very strong team. They have six girls that can make it in before our first girl. And then behind us is Lima Central Catholic, who is going to give us some good competition."
However, the Tinora mentor believes that her pack of youth will come into the districts on a wave of momentum stemming from the GMC title.
Led by freshman and league individual runner-up Emma Bowden, the Lady Rams have gotten a boost as of late from the efforts of sophomore Allison Weber, Ashley Harrington and freshman Allison Cereghin.
"We just have a good girls team that's getting stronger each day," lauded Maxwell. "I have two runners, Allison Weber and Ashley Harrington, who have really picked up some stuff for us. Ashley Harrington has cut a whole minute off her time in the last two weeks. So we are really looking forward to seeing how all of them, particularly these two young ladies, run this weekend."
Competing for a regional trip to Youngstown and leading the area in the boys District 3 division will be fifth-seeded and NWOAL champion Archbold, which placed fourth last season at the Ottawa District to reach the regional plateau.
Facing 10th-ranked Columbus Grove as the only pack seeded above it, Archbold mentor Mike Wachtmann admits that was one of his deciding factors in choosing a district which qualifies to an entirely new regional locale.
"I was able to choose race three, which automatically qualifies to Youngstown, because I knew Columbus Grove was going to Youngstown, and I think we can compete well against them if we run well," he said. "I think we've got as good a chance as they do, so we thought that was our best option."
Archbold is paced by Bryce Tinsman, Alex Hurst, Adrian Ramirez, Zeb Frank and Nathan Wachtmann, and will also be hitting the course against harriers from Liberty-Benton, Stryker, New Bremen, Kalida, Fort Recovery, Hicksville, Edon, Waynesfield-Goshen, Ada, St. Johns, USV and Perry.
"I like where we ended up," Wachtmann stated. "We certainly know we're going to have to run the best races of our season to earn the spot (to regionals). Nobody's going to give any spots away going over to Youngstown, that's not the case. We feel like possibly right now we're number five, and they take four (teams). We're going there feeling like number five tries harder.
"Maybe we could be as strong as three, but we're not one or two," he concluded. "We're seeing ourselves somewhere between three and five, and only four go out. So we've got to work hard."