by: MATTHEW SHERMAN Kelly O’Neill is expected to be one of the top distance runners in the state this year.

There is a lot of excitement surrounding both of Lakeridge's cross country team's this fall.

The Lakeridge boys enter the year as favorites in the Three Rivers League with a very strong top four while the girls are deep and have one of the top runners in the state in junior Kelly O'Neill.

For the boys, this is a season the team has been looking forward to for a while. Gone is West Linn's talented senior class and there to take its place as the league's powerhouse are the Pacers.

Lakeridge is loaded with talent at the top of its roster. Julian Henninger, last spring's champion in the 1500, and Mubark Mebrat, last spring's 3000 champion both return to this year's team along with Alec Koh, one of the league's top distance runner who also has experience at the state meet.

One of the team's bigger earlier surprises is the emergence of Colton Ansberry who has been neck-and-neck with the Pacers' top runners, giving the team a formidable core.

"That top four is as good as anybody else's in the state. We've had some good runners in the past but never four this good at the same time," coach Ken James said.

But a big key to the team's success will be that all-important fifth funner.

"That's going to determine just how good we can be," James said.

Currently Kevin Mertz, Nate Belcik and Christian Veillet are battling for that spot and James hopes one of them emerges to bridge the gap between the pack and the Pacers' top four.

"I think we could be pretty tough but we've got to stay healthy," James said.

For the girls, O'Neill will enter the season with somewhat of a target on her back.

She has been one of the state's top distance runners since she was a freshman but, with both of Jesuit's standouts graduating last spring, she enters the year as one of the favorites in the state.

"She's been a little unknown in the past but she can run with anyone and I think she knows she's up there with the top," James said.

Last year Lakeridge had a formidable 1-2 punch with O'Neill and Latane Cox and James hopes that Lia Newman can fill that No. 2 spot this season.

"She's really improved and had a great track season. She's running really well right now," James said.

Maddie Hearn, Laura Suzuki and Aubrey Larson are also back from last year's top seven on an experienced team with plenty of depth.

There are also some talented newcomers that should make the Pacers even stronger.

Ally Mitchell is out for cross country for the first time this year along with Kayla Brase and freshman Madeline Hummel.

"We've got pretty good depth. The key will be how the girls develop behind Kelly and Lia. We could be pretty dangerous," James said.

At the Trask Mountain Assault last week, Heninger won the boys race and O'Neill won the girls race. Next up for the teams is a race at Blue Lake.

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