Cross country: Kennedy girls running it back again this season
After finishing last year's cross country state championship in third and fifth place, respectively, there's little room left for improvement for Kennedy senior Kaylin Cantu and junior Alejandra Lopez.
Sure, the Trojan teammates will be working hard on eclipsing their personal bests from the previous season, but with the top five finishers from last year's 3A/2A/1A state race returning and improving as well, it will be difficult move up any further in the standings.
So what's left to do but go after a state title as a team instead?
"I'm just really focused on our team, because I think we could win state," Cantu said. "We're really focused on top three, maybe even first."
This isn't just Cantu making idle preseason talk. The Kennedy girls are the only top-five team that returns every single placer from last year, putting the Trojans in prime position to challenge for one of the top three spots in November.
"Expectations are higher because we have everybody back from last year," head coach Steve Ritchie said.
Kennedy came close last year, placing fourth overall in the state standings, but well beyond the top three, finishing nearly 100 points behind state champion Catlin Gabel. That could change this year in part because of the team's returning talent, but also because of the influx of new athletes into the program.
The Trojans opened the season at Friday's annual Night Meet, hosted by Wilsonville High School, with a number of new faces. In addition to newcomers Cassie Traeger and Whitney Lopez, siblings of returning veterans Clarissa Traeger and Alejandra Lopez, the team also welcomed three-sport athlete Molly Jaeger, who is making the switch from volleyball to cross country for her senior year.
Although Jaeger doesn't have a cross country background, she has years of athletic experience as an all-state first baseman in softball and as a member of the Trojans' 2015 state champion basketball team.
"She seems in really good shape already, so I think she'll probably be one of the top five runners," Cantu said. "She'll really help."
All told, the Trojans boast a roster of nearly a dozen girls, good enough to field two teams and have a few left over.
"It may be the biggest team we ever had," Ritchie said. "It's way larger than usual for us. Some years we've been scrambling to get that fifth person."
But it's the end of the season that matters most for the Trojans. Cantu reigns as the three-time district champion and has placed in the top 10 at state in each of her three seasons. Lopez has been district runner-up the past two years and has performed statistically better than Cantu's freshman and sophomore years
Together, the pair are the most formidable duo in the sport at the 3A/2A/1A level and automatically make the Trojans one of the best teams in the state. But the difference between a first-place trophy and a fourth-place trophy will be determined by the teammates who finish behind Cantu and Lopez.
"I'm just excited," Lopez said. "This is going to be our strongest year."
On the boys side, Kennedy is rebuilding the team around a pair of sophomores after the graduation of senior Noe Jines in the spring.
Nick Riedman and Luke Hall return as the team's top two runners from last year, finishing behind Jines in at the 2016 state meet. Although Kennedy lost its top runner when Jines graduated, Hall and Riedman are confident that the team will be better this season.
"Our two top runners will be at the level of (Jines) last year," Hall said. "I think having two runners further placed will pull the team forward."
The two finished within a second of each other at the Night Meet and are going into the season looking to break the 18-minute barrier, regardless of where that puts them in the standings at the end of the season.
"I don't really measure my place, I just go for time," Riedman said.
The two got close last year. Hall set a PR at districts last year, clocking in at 18:03 to finish seventh overall. Riedman was just behind in 12th with a time of 18:22, five seconds shy of his own PR. They were the top two freshmen at last year's district championship, and with four of the top five placers graduated, they each have an opportunity to improve upon their placement at district, helping the team make yet another berth into the state championships race.
With returning junior Nick Spicklemier and junior newcomer Carlos Saravia, the Trojans have a solid core group to help push for that opportunity.
"It's a whole new group and they're very, very young. We have a lot of first- and second-year guys. It kind of makes it a little hard to tell, but I think they're going to come along," Ritchie said. "Our goal will try to be squeeze into the top three and try to make it to state."
Kennedy Cross Country
Coach: Steve Ritchie
2016: Girls — 4th place at State Championships, District 2 Champions
Boys — 13th place at State Championships, 3rd place at District Championships
Key losses: Girls — None
Boys — Noe Jines (35th at State, 9th at Districts); Brandon Rendon (84th at State, 20th at Districts)
Key returners: Girls — Kaylin Cantu (3rd at State, District 2 Champion); Alejandra Lopez (5th at State, 2nd at Districts); Azaris Velazquez (49th at State, 8th at Districts); Natividad Ortiz (61st at State, 9th at Districts); Clarissa Traeger (67th at State, 6th at Districts)
Boys — Luke Hall (44th at State, 7th at Districts); Nick Riedman (54th at State, 12th at Districts)