It should be another star-studded season for the West Linn girls track team. On paper, the Lions appear to be good enough to bring home a trophy from the state meet. But in the top-heavy Three Rivers League, just duplicating last year's district title will be a challenge.
'Clackamas has the numbers, Lakeridge has the front-runners and we have the balance,' West Linn coach Scott Spear said when he was asked to analyze the strengths of the top teams in the TRL.
All three of the teams are so good that it would be virtually impossible at this point to predict the winner of the district meet, which will be held in May. Even determining a dual-meet champion at the end of the regular season will be difficult, at best. That's because some of the top teams - mainly West Linn and Clackamas - won't meet each other during the regular season.
But Spear doesn't need a head-to-head meet against Clackamas to determine how good his squad will be. Even before late-winter workouts started, the coach knew his team would have a plethora of talent.
'We don't really have any holes,' said Spear, whose goal is to have at least two top-level athletes entered in every event. 'We'll try to come at it from all angles.'
The Lions are so talented and so deep that they could conceivably sweep seven or eight events in most of their dual meets this season. According to early-season results turned into Athletic.net, West Linn appears to be strongest in the 400 and 800-meter runs as well as both hurdle events, plus the shot put, discus and javelin.
The Web site shows the Lions with four of the TRL's top six runners in the 400. Heading into Tuesday's dual meet against Lake Oswego, Natalie Pittenger had the league's best 400 time at 1:02.44. But Jazmine Whitlock, who had the league's third-best time, won the Lake Oswego race.
West Linn's 400-meter contingent also includes Alyssa Jernigan and Kristi Pace, who were ranked fourth and sixth, respectively, coming into the Lake Oswego meet.
The Lions are almost as dominant in the 800-meter run, where Diana Crane is the team's early leader. She's ranked second in the TRL with a time of 2:30.3.
Some people believe that West Linn's best events might be the long distance races - the 1,500 and the 3,000. The team is loaded with strong runners there, including sophomore Taylor Nowlin, junior Rachel Signeur, freshman Katheryn Flyte, senior Whitney Harmon and Pace.
Nowlin is definitely the leader of that group after finishing third in the 1,500 and second in the 3,000 at last year's district meet. But the whole group is strong. In fact, four of them have already been clocked at 5:15 or better in the 1,500.
There's one small problem, though, when it comes to the 1,500 and the 3,000. Clackamas is also loaded in those two events, and with Claire Michel, the Cavs might have the best long-distance runner in the state.
The Lions also will be strong in the sprints with Whitlock leading the way. While the 400 might be Whitlock's best race, she's no slouch in the 100 and 200-meter dashes. At the start of the week, she was tied for the league's second-best 100 time (at 13.34).
'She's already pretty close to where she was last year,' Spear said.
Meanwhile, the star in the 200 could end up being sophomore Taylor Brooke, who concentrated only on soccer as a freshman. Despite being somewhat raw as a sprinter, Brooke has already logged the fourth-fastest 200 time in the league.
The Lions also will be very good in the hurdles. That contingent is led by senior Kelli Walters, the league's defending 100-meter high-hurdle champ. One might expect her to run away with that honor this year, but teammate Kaitlyn Reid is running almost stride for stride with Walters.
At a non-scoring meet at Tigard last week, Walters and Reid went 1-2 and were separated by just a tenth of a second. And junior Amy Kestek isn't too far behind that duo with the league's fourth-best high-hurdle time.
In the 300 hurdles at the Tigard meet, Reid and Walters were again in a virtual tie for the top spot but this time Reid came out the winner. And Kestek is ranked sixth in that event.
Through most of the last two seasons, Lakeridge's Samantha Berryman was widely considered the top hurdler in the league. But this year, Berryman is recovering from knee surgery (after being injured playing soccer), which means she could spend most of the season chasing West Linn's hurdlers.
'They're not going to make it easy for Berryman. That's for sure,' Spear said.
'I think this is the best group (of hurdlers) we've had in the last 10 or 11 years,' the coach said.
The Lions also will be returning three-quarters of their 4x400 relay team that qualified for state last year. Returnees Whitlock, Pittenger and Jernigan probably will be joined either by Pace or Crane. The combination of Pace, Jernigan, Crane and Pittenger has already posted the league's second-best time.
Then there's the field events, which used to be somewhat of a weakness for the Lions. Now they've become a stronghold.
The discussion there would have to begin at javelin, where junior Ali Super has no equals, anywhere. She's already heaved the spear 150-feet, 3-inches, which is two inches short of Jeeni Schantin's school record. That throw put Super 25 feet ahead of the second best toss in Oregon. It also gives her the best mark in the nation.
'She's our one diamond,' Spear said. 'She's beyond a super athlete.'
The Lions should rack up a lot of points in the javelin this year, because Sam Dewart is ranked second in the league and Nikki Aden is No. 5
It will be a similar situation in the discus and shot put. Coming into the week, Aden was tops in the league in the discus while Dewart was No. 3. In the shot, Dewart is at the top of the list while Aden is No. 4. Last year, Dewart qualified for state in both of those events, making her the only member of the team to qualify in two individual events.
The Lions also will be strong in the jumps and junior Sami DeMars will be the central figure there. She qualified for state last year in the high jump and came close in the long jump.
This year, the Lions could have three or four other girls pushing for the team's top spot in the long jump. And in the high jump, Super is right behind DeMars.
This year's team might be even better than last year's squad, but winning a second consecutive district title could be more difficult since Clackamas and Lakeridge have both improved as well.
'We're just going to put people in their best positions and hope we run our best on race day,' Spear said.