By BRYAN GASKINS Kokomo Tribune
---- — Eastern’s girls cross country program enjoyed a terrific run of success in 2009-12, winning four straight Mid-Indiana Conference meets, four straight sectionals and back-to-back regionals in 2011 and ‘12. At the ‘12 state meet, Eastern stood out as the small school with big talent as it earned a seventh-place finish.
Now, Eastern has to replace the bulk of that big talent. Four-year standouts Bethany Neeley, Brittany Neeley and Sarah Wagner graduated in the spring. The Neeley sisters are continuing their XC and track careers at Indiana University and Wagner is continuing her track and field career at Lipscomb University.
At last year’s state meet, Bethany took fourth place individually, Brittany was 16th and Wagner was 45th.
“Obviously, graduating the girls we had last year, you can’t replace that. That’s not something you can even think about,” Eastern coach Brandon Mink said. “Having said that, we do have some returners from last year and they developed those habits of good workouts and so on. We’re basically just trying to rebuild in some sense. We do have some good veterans coming back so we’re kind of looking forward to seeing them start the next chapter here at Eastern.”
The Comets’ cupboard is far from bare. Junior Avery Ewing and sophomores Jessie Sprinkles and Carly Jones return from the Comets’ postseason lineup.
Last year, Ewing was fifth at sectional, 10th at regional, 29th at semistate and 133rd at state.
“Avery is definitely stronger [following] summer workouts,” Mink said. “Now that we’ve graduated those top girls from last year, she has really followed in their footsteps. She learned a lot from them and she has kind of taken a lot of the leadership responsibilities.”
Sprinkles was 13th at sectional, 17th at regional, 71st at semistate and a surprising 89th at state.
“Jessie has really impressed me,” Mink said. “Last year, she didn’t really start to come on strong until the end of the season, then she had a real breakout race at the state meet. And then in the spring, she had an incredible season in track. She was on the nation-leading 4x800 [relay] team. She is probably more naturally a mid-distance runner, but she has put in some miles and is coming on as a distance cross country runner now as well. She is much improved from last year at this point.”
Sprinkles, Wagner and the Neeley sisters teamed to win the 4x800 relay at the track and field state meet.
Jones also enjoyed a nice freshman season, finishing fourth at sectional, fifth at regional, 35th at semistate and 52nd at state. She has been slowed some by injury, which Mink noted has kept her from logging heavy miles.
Eastern also has junior Elyssa DeAngulo and freshmen Kaylie Forgrave and Kaylee Gebhart.
“We don’t have large numbers,” Mink said. “We’re going to have no room for error, essentially. We’re going to try to improve as much as we can, but we’re going to have to be cautious at times because we don’t have room for injuries and things like that.”
The following are looks at Howard County’s other teams in advance of this week’s opening meets.
The Tigers were MIC and sectional runners-up last year. They will look to challenge for the top spots this year.
“We have a core group of veterans and a few newer girls. Our hopes are high,” coach Dave Stevens said.
Specifically, the Tigers want to reach the semistate meet after falling just short of a trip last year. Northwestern and Plymouth tied for fifth place (the final advancing spot) at the regional. Plymouth won the tiebreaker.
Senior Taryn Thor leads the Tigers. Last year, she was sixth at sectional, 14th at regional and 43rd at semistate where she ran as an individual.
Northwestern returns five other runners from its sectional and regional lineup. Senior Karly Sprouse was 15th at sectional and 30th at regional, junior Kindra Gingerich was 11th at sectional and 22nd at regional, junior Rachel Johns had finishes of 35th and 50th, sophomore Jensen Freeman had finishes of 23rd and 59th and sophomore Rebecca Sims was 52nd at both meets.
Seniors Olivia Price and Lauren Ward, junior Megan Bunch and freshman Nicole Crocker are in the mix for varsity spots this year.
“I’m expecting big things from the girls as far as competing against each other each day, pushing each other,” Stevens said.
The Panthers have 14 runners in camp, including a solid core of veterans.
“We had a great summer training,” coach Joni McCracken said. “We had a lot of girls who were consistent in their training. Our older girls have a couple years under their belts now and they understand the importance of that offseason and that is really starting to show with their fitness level at this point of the season.”
Junior Nicole Hampshire is the Panthers’ top returning runner. She was 10th at the sectional last year.
The Panthers also return from their sectional lineup sophomores Sam Luginbuhl (17th place), Erin Knepley (18th) and Taylor Nunan (39th).
Junior Emma Nixon has been running with the Panthers’ lead pack and freshmen Reagan Ritchie and Shelby Hulka are showing promise as well.
Senior Faith Mooney, junior Cora Johnson, sophomore Mallory Davis and freshman Jama Claxton also are in the mix.
“We have good depth,” McCracken said. “We have no real superstars, but we do have a [lead] group that can run together and pull each other along.
“We’re lucky that these girls are young and we can build with them. They have talent, drive and desire.”
The Wildkats are rebuilding following heavy graduation losses. Freshman Cinnamon Andrews will help anchor the new-look lineup.
“I lost six seniors so what I’m doing is trying to rebuild the program,” coach Dave Barnes said. “What I’d like to do is get my first-time runners to enjoy running enough that we can put the miles on the legs next summer. I’d like to put five or six people around Cinnamon. All of a sudden, we could have a pretty good team. But that is down the road.”
Barnes is glad to have Andrews in his lineup.
“Cinnamon is a talent. She’ll be our lead runner,” he said.
Kokomo returns three letterwinners — senior Hannah Reecer, junior Mary Lucas and sophomore Elise Glover. Lucas and Glover likely will fill the Nos. 2 and 3 spots in the lineup.
Kokomo’s new runners are senior Kristina Moreland, juniors Sydney Rethlake and Amalie Christoffersen, sophomores Elizabeth Curtis, Madeline Ryals and Mackenzie Foye and freshman Abbie O’Keefe. Christoffersen is an international student from Denmark.
Barnes noted he is receiving plenty of assistance from his assistant coaches, and also from some seniors from last year who have been running in practice to help the new Kats learn the ropes.
All in all, Barnes is enjoying practices.
“It’s the nicest group I’ve ever coached,” he said, referring to the collection of 2012 seniors and current Kats.
The Titans have juniors Aly Davis, Ashley Nguyen, Alanna Hendrickson and Kylie Williams and sophomores Cami Hansen and Paige Welsh.
Nguyen and Hendrickson ran in the sectional last year. Davis also was with the team last year, but had an injury cut short her season. Hansen played volleyball last year.
“The [returning] girls look a little stronger than they did last year, then Cami and Page have a lot to bring,” coach Matt Carlile said, noting there is the possibility of another runner or two joining the team.