Five universities picked up five of Jamestown's premier long-distance runners this fall, leaving Jamestown High School head cross country coach Ken Gardner kind of at a loss headed into the prep season.
"It's going to be different this year," Gardner said. "We're left with a void at the top level so it'll be interesting to see how the different athletes step up and fill out our top five and maybe even our top 10. Every year brings its own challenges and we're attacking this no different than any other year."
The Blue Jay cross country team, sans JHS Class of 2021 grads Ben Anteau, Meghan Ford, Gavin Haut, Micah Hoke and Chandlar Rott, will kick off the season hosting the annual "Orrigninals" meet on Saturday at Parkhurst Recreation Area. The starting gun for the girls' race is slated to sound at 11 a.m. with the boys' race to follow.
The 2021 Class B and Class A state cross country meets are slated to be held at Parkhurst once again this season. The Class B races will be held Oct. 22 while the Class A runners will take off on Oct. 23.
Gardner has been coaching his new crop of runners all summer but said he is still trying to figure out who will fill the voids on the girls and boys teams. Four of the Jays' top-four runners on the girls' side from last year did not go out for cross country this season due to other athletic commitments.
"We're trying to come up with some end-of-the-season goals," Gardner said of himself and the rest of the Blue Jay coaching staff. "The boys were fifth in the state and the girls were ninth (last year) -- I think that might be a little high after the number of people we graduated."
While the Jays' top five and maybe even top 10 runners are still somewhat of a mystery, Gardner said senior returner Cullen Flieth will likely be among the mix of the Jays' top runners, but that names in the top five crew could also evolve some over the course of the season.
"He's one who's put in plenty of miles with that crew that graduated last year and so he knows what it takes," Gardner said of Flieth. "He's stepped up a little bit this year and realizes that this is a chance for him to be one of the leaders on the team.
"Cullen and Ethan Igl saw great examples of what it takes to be successful in cross country, the hard work the dedication, but there's a lot of unknown because (the seniors) really dominated our team the last few years."
Igl, a junior, has been crossing the line at a consistent pace during his time with Gardner and the Blue Jays. Other than the upperclassmen duo of Flieth and Igl, Gardner said the Blue Jays will likely have to depend on some incoming freshmen and even seventh and eighth graders. The head coach said he is looking forward to Flieth and Igl taking over the athlete leadership role.
While the boys' team will have to dip into the pool of middle schoolers to round out the top five, the girls' team will likely be led by an eighth grader.
Last spring, Meghan Ford said she was greatly impressed by now eighth grader Brooklyn Nygaard and the strides she made during her seventh-grade campaign in both the cross country and track and field season.
"She was just a seventh grader last year but as a seventh grader she was all-WDA and that doesn't happen a whole lot -- Meghan (Ford) wasn't even all-conference as a seventh grader," Gardner said. "She is one that is going to put in the work. I see a lot of what made Meghan a tough runner in Brooklyn."
Gardner said Nygaard has made herself a student of the sport, following through with not only the workouts but also the recovery processes like stretching. Nygaard was also noted as conscientious and dedicated to the strength and conditioning program.
"That's a great place to be going into her eighth grade year," Gardner said.
Aside from Nygaard, Gardner said another name to watch would be returning senior Maddy Orr. Junior Kyra Hoffer and eighth grader Madison Rick. The four will likely round out the Jays' top runners headed into the first couple meets of the season.
"It's so different than we have had the last couple of years," Gardner said. "Once we get into competition we will have a better idea of where we will match up with some of those other teams."