By Jim Rueda
---- — MANKATO — If there's one common thread running through the six Mankato high school cross country teams, it's youth.
Most of them have some upper classmen that will make significant contributions but most will also rely on junior high or underclassmen to fill out their top seven varsity spots.
The coaches say its not unusual to have younger runners making an impact and expect that trend to continue in the near future. The real challenge is convincing the good ones to stay in the program through their senior years.
The following is a thumbnail sketch of each team:
EAST BOYS: The Cougars have graduated top runner Brad Kunz but have just about everybody else back. Coach Chris Ward has just under 45 runners out in grades 7-12.
Kunz finished at or near the top in just about every meet last season, and his point-total will be tought to replace. "Some of our young guys are going to have to step up to try to fill that void," Ward said.
Among this year's top returning runners are the Warning twins — Isaiah and Micah — as well as junior Tony Nelson. All three should be in the team's Top 5.
"It's fun to have that dynamic of the two Warning brothers on the team," Ward said. "They're captains who have a lot of fun, but they're very competitive with each other and everyone else."
Those challenging for the remaining Top 5 sports are senior Logan Harms and junior Neil Nienaber.
Owatonna is the Big Nine Conference favorite while Orono and Chaska should challenge for the Section 2AA championship.
"We'd like to be over .500 in our meets by the end of the season," Ward said. "If we could get into the Top 3 in the conference, that would be great, as well."
The Cougars begin the season with a four-team home meet Aug. 27.
LOYOLA GIRLS: Coach Dale Compton has around 13 girls out for the team, returning the top five runners from 2012.
A year ago, seventh-grader Kyla Haas burst on to the scene late in the season and ended up qualifying for state. She placed 44th at the Class A meet.
Junior Mary Ninneman is another top returner. She has been a key contributor since seventh grade, and Compton says her leadership will be as valuable to the team as her times.
Ninth-grader Laynie Kubista was a top-five runner on varsity last season and is expected to do the same this year. Senior Elizabeth Piepho is back and fellow senior Justine Compton, who has been hampered by injuries for much of her career, is back out as well.
Eighth-grader Allison Rupp is another runner who expects to challenge for a Top 5 spot in 2013.
Coach Compton says United South Central and Martin County West are the favorites in the Gopher Valley Conference. USC, Waseca and Fairmont are the perennial favorites in the Section 2A meet.
He says realistic goals are are a top three finish in the conference and a top-four finish in the section.
WEST BOYS: Coach Joe Broze begins his third season with the team and says the numbers are up with an influx of about 30 runners in grades seven and eight. He has around 50 kids out overall.
No. 1 runner from last year Trace Johnson has graduated. He was All-Big Nine in 2012 and will be missed.
On the positive side, co-captains Andrew Fritz and Ben Broze return to anchor the Top 5 runners. Fritz is a senior, and Broze is a junior.
Tanner Johnson is a solid No. 3 runner and then things get a little murky. Sophomores Jake Jankoski and Cedar Mowrey are among the top candidates for the final starting spots.
"We're going to be solid because we're going to be a little deeper than last year," coach Broze said. "The kids are excited; most of them did a lot of running this summer."
The coach says Rochester Century could be the team to beat in the Big Nine Conference and hopes the Scarlets can squeeze somewhere into the Top 4. "We were seventh last year so that would be a nice jump for us."
Chaska and Chanhassen are the Section 2AA favorites and Marshall could challenge, as well.
The Scarlets begin the season Aug. 27 at the Austin Invitational.
EAST GIRLS: The Cougars have 21 runners out in grades 8-12, and coach Neill Paarmann is expecting about 10 more when the seventh-graders show up. "That's the best numbers we've had in a long time," he said.
"Improvement" will be the by word for East this year as it looks to move up from a 10th-place in the Big Nine to the middle of the pack. "Fourth would be really great, and fifth would be good, too," Paarmann said.
This year's team will be led by freshman Ivy Glade. She is the team's clear-cut No. 1 runner and has been looking good in preseason practices. Junior Jennifer Johnson is also looking good as is sophomore Andrea Nett. Those three should consistently be in the Cougars' top five.
Behind that trio is a group of promising but unproven runners who should sort themselves out as they get into the season. Paarmann figures Rochester Century, Owatonna and Winona are the teams to beat in the Big 9 while Shakopee and Chaska are the favorites in the section.
The Cougars open the season Tuesday, Aug. 27, with a home quadrangular involving Faribault, Belle Plaine and Minnesota Valley Lutheran up on the East campus.
LOYOLA BOYS: The Crusaders graduated four of the top six runners from a year ago. Coach Dale Compson has 16 student-athletes out for the team in grades 7-12.
Senior Wyatt Elmer will anchor the team. As a junior, he finished 52nd at the state meet. "He's a good runner and a good leader for us," Compton said.
Among the other challengers for varsity sports are eighth-grader Landon Javens and senior Nick Courrier. Javens had a strong track season last spring, and Courrier has been working hard in the offseason to improve
Two more runners who are out for cross country for only the second season are senior Andrew Murray and junior Aaron Guentzel. Murray has made big strides since last year. Guentzel is recovered from the injuries that held him back a year ago.
Martin County West is the clear-cut favorite to win the Gopher Valley Conference championship and should battle Waseca for the Section 2A title. Compton said trying to get back to a Top 4 finish in the conference is a good goal for this fall.
The Crusaders open the season Aug. 29 with a 4 p.m. home meet on Good Counsel Hill.
WEST GIRLS: Coach Scott Carlson says his team is in about the same shape numbers-wise as last year with about 40 runners out in grades 7-12. The Scarlets did not lose any varsity runners and return a wealth of young competitors with at least a year's worth of experience.
Among the top returnees are senior Holly Hankins and three eighth-graders — Savannah Friessen, Cait Flannery and Briggs Carlson. Sophomore Katie Esslinger is also a top candidate for West's top five.
"The bottom line is, we have a young team but have everybody back and we're looking to buld on last year's late-season success," coach Carlson said. "We have a lot of kids who have put in a ton of miles this summer. Most of them came back in pretty good shape."
The Scarlets were second to last in the Big Nine in 2012 but Carlson believes his crew can make a giant leap forward. "We're hoping for top-2 in the conference. We finished strong with three seventh-graders last year, and we expect them to continue to improve."
Shakopee will be the clear-cut favorite to win the section this season. West opens the season Tuesday, Aug. 27, at the Austin Invitational.