Local teams highlight cross-country polls

Published 4:12 pm Friday, August 12, 2016

By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor

With the fall season now here, football will take up the lions’ share of the sporting landscape. But there are other sports happening in the fall season worthy of our attention as well, sports like cross-country. Cross-country in Shelby County is always extremely competitive, and there are a number of county schools in position to have strong years. Briarwood Christian, Helena, Pelham, Oak Mountain and Spain Park all have teams that are projected to finish in the top 10 of their respective classifications this year, according to Alabamarunners.com.

The Lions come into the cross-country season projected to finish fifth in 5A this season, which would be three spots better than their eighth-place finish a year ago at the 6A level. Griffin Oaks, Briarwood’s top runner from last season, has graduated, but the rest of Briarwood’s scoring five from the 2015 state meet are all back. Headlining this group will be junior Zack Howard. Howard is the only member of Briarwood’s team who has run sub-18 minutes in a race, but Wade Herren, George Moore, Jacob Wong and Will Windham are all primed to break the 18-minute mark this year as well as the Lions look to establish themselves among the elite 5A teams.

The Lady Lions, by comparison, are projected to finish 10th this season at the state meet. Junior Katie Mier and freshman Lauren Musachia will lead this Briarwood team, and will be joined by Leigh Ann Mathews, Meghan Talley and Laney Wagoner.

Pelham’s girl’s team, which has been a mainstay in the 6A ranks for years now, is projected to finish ninth in the 6A girls state meet. With the graduation of Mary Grace Strozier, it will now be freshman Katie Strozier, the younger sister of Mary Grace, who will be tasked with leading this team. Strozier’s best time of 20:17.57 last season was more than a minute better than any other Pelham returner. Alex Wilkins, Perla Buendia-Pichardo, Carys Stubbs and Meredith Bass will round out the top five Pelham runners this year.

The Helena boys, moving up to 6A this season from 5A a season ago, are also projected to finish fifth in the 6A class this year. Led by sophomore Blake Vaughn, the Huskies will be in tight competition with the likes of Walker, Baldwin County and Cullman this season for a top-5 finish. Justin Ritondo, Spencer Hodges, Talon Pritchard and Jacob Lackey, all of whom have run sub-18:30’s, round out the Husky’s top five.

Both the Spain Park and the Oak Mountain girls’ teams are projected to finish in the top 10 of 7A teams this year, although Oak Mountain’s projection among that group is largely dependent on whether or not Nicole Payne runs. Payne, one of the best pure athletes in the county, is a soccer player who moonlights on the cross-country team, and ran an 18:47.24 last year as an eighth grader, but ran an 18:29.00 as a sixth-grader three years ago. Whatever meet she runs in the Lady Eagles will be toward the top of the pack.

The Lady Jags benefit from the return of junior Isabel Caddo and eighth-grader Holland Lidikay. Both Caddo and Lidikay have top-20 times across the 7A class and will be crucial to Spain Park’s success. Alyssa Gaston, Kristen Hopkins and Mary Katherine Tedder round out Spain Park’s top five entering the season.

The boys’ teams from both Oak Mountain and Spain Park are also projected to finish in the top 10 as well. For Oak Mountain, the return of Cole Stidfole and Caleb Van Geffen is huge news. Stidfole posted the fastest time in the state last year, a 15:20.45, and will vie for the overall No. 1 seed in the state along with Auburn’s Jack Rodgers and Hoover’s Tommy McDonough. Matthew Hazelwood, Chris Tate and Bryce Keefover will also return this year and should help lead the Eagles to another impressive season.

Spain Park is projected to finish eighth this season and return a pack of runners separated by less than a minute. Cole Dillard, a sophomore, is the only member of the team who has broken 17 minutes, and will be joined this year by Morgan Becker, Jacob Warner, Kai Ozug and Isaac Shore.

Most Shelby County teams will start the season on Aug. 26 at the University of Montevallo in the Early Bird Twilight Classic.