The Hardin County Fairgrounds near Kenton will be the site of the Western Buckeye League cross country championships on Saturday, as both the Defiance girls and boys CC packs will look to improve upon third-place team finishes from a year ago.
While the girls are slated to run at 10 a.m. before the boys take the line at 10:45 a.m., each squad will be expectably tested by the traditional rigid competition the WBL has become noted for.
In the girls race, that rivalry comes fourfold, according to DHS mentor Scott Saner.
Paced by a sixth-place finish by Kristen Fett, the Defiance girls placed third as a team a year ago behind WBL champion Lima Shawnee and runner-up Van Wert, while edging out fourth-place finisher Celina.
Harboring four WBL crowns and as many runner-up accolades in Saner's 10 years as head coach, last year's showing is a motivating factor to his mix of youth and veteran runners heading into this season's championship race.
"It was the first time in a decade that we haven't been in the top two," Saner stated. "It was disappointing for the girls last year, and I know they want to improve on that this year. We have to run well and we've got to have our young kids step up and compete well for us if we want to have a chance."
With Fett returning to lead as a senior, the Defiance girls' top five has been consistently been bolstered by freshman Olivia Fett and the senior duo of Brittney Holmes and Candice Lawson, with freshman Rachel Jones running a solid fifth.
Holmes placed 13th in last year's WBL meet to earn special mention honors.
"Like any other season, we've had some ups and downs," said Saner, whose pack recently won the St. Xavier Invitational and placed third at Greenville. "In some ways it's gone very well. I have a mix of young kids and veterans, so we've improved a little as the season's gone on."
The improvement will be necessary, however, as Shawnee, Van Wert and Celina are again expected to be frontrunners along with the Lady 'Dogs.
Shawnee looks to defend its WBL crown behind junior Adrienne Pohl and senior Emily Wolery. While Pohl returns as the defending individual champion, Wolery crossed the line fourth out of last season's field.
Making the competition tougher, Van Wert sophomore Andi Foster returns as last year's individual runner-up along with newcomer Schelissa Williams and junior Jacey Eickenbary. Meanwhile, Celina brings back an experienced pack paced by seniors Hannah Fleck and Andrea Bell, who boasted respective third and fifth-place standings a year ago.
"I went into it last year saying it was going to be a four-team race, and it's the same four schools again this year," Saner said. "Lima Shawnee is the defending champ and they have everybody back. I think Celina is much-improved and they've got the top individual girl in the league. And then Van Wert is annually a top-two or three team in the league, and they should be right there again. So I think it's between us four … whoever has the hot day."
Possibly stirring things up in the girls pack will be Ottawa-Glandorf freshman Madysen Haselman along with Kenton senior Demi Snyder and freshman Hannah Tobin of host Kenton.
"When you go to a meet like this and you have a legitimate chance to win, that's always an exciting thing," concluded Saner. "We've been fortunate enough to be in that position over the last 10 years, and we're looking forward to it again on Saturday."
Following the girls race, the DHS boys harriers will be put to the test against seventh-ranked Van Wert while trying to regain some team consistency after recently being reunited with top runner Abel Flores.
Flores, who defeated Van Wert standout Jared Fleming by 40 seconds to capture last year's individual WBL crown, spent much of the season absent due to injury. However, since returning to the pack, the DHS junior placed first at St. Xavier while leading the team to a second-place standing.
Along with Flores, the 19th-ranked Defiance boys have been steadied by solid running from seniors Jordan Harpest and Jacob Rosebrock, juniors Ben Rath and Alex Schrag along with the endurance of sophomore newcomer Alex Barrientos.
"We just don't know where we totally stand yet because we really haven't been together that much," admitted Defiance boys head coach Obie Mouser. "We've started to come together the past week and a half and started to run together pretty well. We've been practicing well, so it looks like things are coming together for us. Hopefully we've got enough time left to get it going."
With Fleming coming back along with senior Luke Brubaker, freshman Connor Holiday and sophomore Kase Schalois, Mouser knows his Bulldogs will have their work cut out for them in order to improve on last year's third-place standing and challenge for WBL supremacy.
"We have to break up Holiday and Fleming," said Mouser, whose program has 16 league titles to its credit. "Abel's going to have to get ahead of them both or in between them. And then we have to get a guy in front of Schalois, and then we've got to make sure the rest of our pack stays in front of their fourth guy."
But even with the team now intact, Mouser sees Van Wert as a hands-down favorite among defending champion Lima Shawnee, runner-up Ottawa-Glandorf, Celina, Elida, St. Marys, Wapakoneta, Lima Bath and Kenton.
When questioned about any other WBL team giving league and state powerhouse Van Wert a run for its money, Mouser's answered quite frankly and to the point.
"I really don't see it," he noted. "It could happen, but right now Van Wert's been, far and away, way ahead of any of the rest of us in the league."