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Eagles looking to fly through 2019 XC season

EAGLES: Oak Hill's girls cross country team returns each of its top seven runners from its Grant Four, CIC, Marion Sectional and Regional championship team in 2018. Pictured (from left) are: Kate Hornocker, Selah Jackson, Ireland Dodson, Kinzie Robey, Lauren Marsh, Mollie Gamble and Grace Geller (behind).

BY SCOTT HUNT - shunt@chronicle-tribune.com

Oak Hill's cross country program has established itself as one of the area's best for several seasons under coach Paige Brunner, but the excitement in his voice when talking about the prospects for the 2019 season for both the Golden Eagles girls' and boys' teams says it could be special.

Brunner returns each of his top seven runners from a girls team that won Grant Four, Central Indiana Conference, Marion Sectional and Regional championships in 2018 and is led by one of the state's top female runners in senior Mollie Gamble.

Oak Hill's boys team also returns its top five from last season and is adding in a pair of new runners in junior Jacob Winger and freshman Landon Biegel along with four other returnees that should keep the Golden Eagles amongst the teams to beat when tournament season rolls around. 

But Brunner's excitement isn't just about who is back, it's more about what they've done since last season ended.

"I don't think it's too far stretched to say that this is by far the best summer we've had on both sides since I've been here, collectively," said Brunner, who is into his 14th-year training Oak Hill athletes. "We may have had individuals who've had better summers but in regards to having people out and the work that the kids were putting in and willing to put in, they didn't really leave anything out there.

"We're definitely in a position where I'm ready to watch us race," he continued. "To use a basketball analogy, I'm tired of watching us beat up on each other. We'll see what that actually brings in the season. ... I'm very excited and enthusiastic to see what happens when these kids get turned loose."

As Gamble races her way through her final high school season, she has a chance to join some elite company. Only two other runners in county history, Cameron Balser for Oak Hill's boys and Laura Bruns from Marion's girls, have qualified for four consecutive state championship meets. Barring injury, Gamble, who finished 19th at state in 2018 for her first state medal, will unquestionably be the third county competitor to reach that accomplishment.

"With Mollie its pushing that top-10 barrier at state, that's what her goal is." Brunner said. "She's preseason ranked 15th. ... We increased her mileage this summer and increased the intensity in regards to pace, she looks like she's ready to go.

Junior Kinzie Robey was runner-up to Gamble in Grant Four, CIC and sectional then finished ninth in the regional. Junior Selah Jackson also recorded top five finishes in county, conference and sectional then ran to seventh in regional. Sophomore Grace Geller showed a lot of potential and was most often the Eagles' No. 4 finisher in 2018. Brunner has high hopes that improvement from his top-four, along with seniors Ireland Dodson and Lauren Marsh and junior Kate Hornocker could lead to better finishes in the biggest races.  

"You know what Mollie is and at this point we know what Kinzie is. We've got to get Selah to take that next step. I think the other girl in that group that can take the next step is sophomore Grace Geller," Brunner said. "Selah and Grace need to take a big step and that helps ease the pressure on Mollie and Kinzie.

"Kate Hornocker, Ireland Dodson and Lauren Marsh, those girls have been mainstays for us at the varsity level for the last couple years," he added. "...The first goal is to stay healthy and compete at a high level in county and conference and hopefully enter the tournament healthy and a have an opportunity to repeat those championships. Then at least enter the semistate with a conversation to be had about what our chances are."

Brunner's assessment for the potential of his boys' teams was short and sweet. 

"The sky is the limit based on who we've got back," he said.

Seniors Dillon Mitchell, Macallister Cheek, Tahj Johnson, Danny Nally and Cody Dubois have all been varsity runners, for most, if not all of their high school careers. Sophomore Sol O'Blenis was consistently amongst the Eagles top-five in meets last season while his classmates Landon Ashely and Lucas Cates have each shown big improvement from the end of last season. Winger and Biegel bring another dynamic of competitiveness to practice. 

Brunner admitted that there could be significant competition between all 10 runners from day-to-day, meet-to-meet and to see who will run for the Golden Eagles once the state tournament rolls around in October. 

"They've won a lot of championships and had a lot of success but they've never really had that state-level success so you've got a group there that's very very motivated," Brunner said of his boys, particularly the seniors. "We know how talented Tahj is and we know how talented Dillon is. Macallister Cheek is the guy that's took the next step. He probably had the best workouts for an athlete that I've had since Cameron Balser up at our Dunes camp. Him and Dillon are battling for the number one spot every day."

"Sol O'Blenis is right there with Mac in terms of he has upped his game in regards to training," he added. "It's what he loves to do. I see him being right on the heels of Dillon and Mac. ... The two newcomers are going to be huge piece for us. ... I think we've got nine or 10 guys that could realistically be in our top five and as long as they stay healthy. We're going to have to check egos and maybe be the one or two one meet and be the four or five the next. We may have a senior or two that's out of the top seven at times. That's just going to make us better but they have to buy into that."

Oak Hill's first big meet of the season comes Saturday at the Southwestern (Shelby) Invite.