by: VERN UYETAKE - Kelly O'Neill figures to be one of the state's top contenders heading into this year's cross country meet.The Lakeridge cross country team is blessed with one of it best turnouts in years this fall and has high hopes that both the boys and girls team can earn a trip to state this season.

More than 80 kids are running in the program which includes a talented group of 30 freshmen.

The Lakeridge girls feature possibly the deepest team that the Pacers have ever had according to coach Ken James.

The team is loaded with experience with its top nine runners all returning from last year. The Pacers return Kelly O'Neill for her senior season. O'Neill has been one of the state's top distance runners since her freshman year and is hoping to wrap up her final high school cross country season on a very positive note.

“She should be up there with the top three to five kids in the state and could have a shot to win it,” James said.

After O'Neill, Lakeridge has a large contingent of runners who are putting up similar times. Lia Newman, the team's No. 2 runner last season, returns, along with seniors Laura Suzuki and Aubrey Larson.

Lea Zawada and Madeline Hummel also saw plenty of varsity time last fall and Andi Bisbjerg has been impressive in early runs. Ruby Taylor is also back for her senior year after missing much of last year with injuries.

“We'll probably run 10 or 12 girls on varsity for most of the year and I expect they'll shuffle around a lot,” James said.

James knows that much of the success of the season will come down to home much that pack behind O'Neill can shave off its time.

“It will all depend on that core group to see who of those eight or nine girls really steps up,” James said.

Lakeridge, which finished second at the district meet last year, hopes to be in the running for the league title this year and perhaps make some noise at state too.

For the boys, the team is replacing three of its top seven, including two of its top three in Alec Koh and Mubark Mebrat.

However, Lakeridge returns Julian Heninger who could be one of the favorites at this year's state meet.

Heninger finished second in the 3000 at the state track meet by one hundredth of a second and finished in the top-10 in state cross country last year.

“He should be up there with the top five this year,” James said.

Colton Ansberry also returns from last year's varsity team and is coming off a very strong track season where he made the district finals in the 800.

Two more seniors have also been strong early in the season in Nate Belcik and Kevin Mertz and their experience could be crucial to the team this season.

Junior Corrado Pitari should also make an impact along with a trio of freshmen who have the potential to crack the varsity line-up.

“That's the advantage of having 80 kids in the program is that if the kids work hard, they can see some dramatic results,” James said.

Lakeridge is gearing up for the start of the season and recently had a strong showing at the Portland to Coast Relay. The Pacers split up their team in the high school division and finished in third and fifth place.

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