Girls' Teams To Watch
1. Heritage: The Lady Generals return the bulk of their team that won the Georgia Class AAA state championship in 2011.
2. Baylor: The Lady Red Raiders will be in the hunt for Tennessee's Division II-AA title, led by four-time all-stater Haley Chandler.
3. Home School: Juniors Sarah Kate Gartman and Karla Vradenburgh return from a team that won the national home school championship last season.
Boys' Teams To Watch
1. McCallie: The Blue Tornado enter the 2012 season hungry after a disappointing state race gave them a second-place finish. They return their top four runners.
2. Bradley Central: The Bears expect to be among Class AAA's top teams based on the strength of leaders Paul Patterson and Harold Smith.
3. Collegedale Academy: Led by Seth Ruhling, the Eagles have enough talent to continue their streak of qualifying for state meets despite not being able to compete in the Saturday events.
Girls' Runners To Watch
1. Haley Ward, McMinn County: She won the Class AAA state title with the best time posted by a female in the 2011 meet.
2. Beka Day, Cleveland: She finished second in the Region 3-AAA meet last year.
3: Bekah Houston, Dalton: She was third in the Georgia Region 7-AAA meet and 14th in the state race.
Boys' Runners To Watch
1. Simon Holden, Baylor: The Chattanooga Cross Country League runner of the year finished second in the Division II-AA state meet.
2. Paul Patterson, Bradley Central: He had an injury-filled 2011 season but is healthy and expected to be one of the area's top runners again. He was the Region 3-AAA champion in 2010.
3. Nick McCormick, East Hamilton: He won the Region 3-A/AA title last season and finished second in the state meet.
At the conclusion of the 2011 state cross country meet at Percy Warner Park in Nashville, it was almost an odd feeling not seeing the Baylor girls on the podium accepting the championship plaque. The goal this season is to ensure that those returning don't experience that feeling again.
Baylor returns three girls who have been selected all-state, led by four-time honoree Haley Chandler. Ruthie Townsend has been selected twice, and the now-healthy Caitlin Duggan, who has been snake-bitten with injuries the past two seasons, returns as well for what should be a loaded roster.
Last season, there was a plethora of talent in both the girls' and boys' cross country teams in the area. Chattanooga Christian and Heritage's girls both won state championships. The local home school team won a national championship.
Sixteen of the 19 female runners selected to the Best of Preps team return this season, including runner of the year Haley Ward from McMinn County, who won the Class AAA state individual championship with the best time posted by a female at the meet.
Ward finished 81st at the 2010 state meet and also is McMinn's top career scorer in soccer. She was named the Chattanooga Cross Country League runner of the year after winning every league race she competed in. The area's strength doesn't end with her, as Cleveland's Beka Day and Rhea County's Madalyn Garland expect to push her in region competition, as well as Heritage's Natalie Espinoza-Hensley and Dalton's Bekah Houston.
The McMinn County senior's ascent to the top of the standings caught many people, including opponents, off guard.
"Honestly, I didn't even know who Haley Ward was until the state meet," Townsend said. "She came out of nowhere."
Eleven of the 19 boys on the Best of Preps team return, led by Baylor's Simon Holden, who finished second in the Division II-AA state meet and was selected the area boys' runner of the year.
The three Baylor girls' leaders, although competing against area competition only on a couple of occasions in 2011, enjoy the challenge of going up against top-flight talent before their state meet.
"It does make it more interesting when you know the people you're going against," Duggan said. "You hear about these other runners all year, but you don't always get to go against them. I like the opportunity of racing people in the area."
The Lady Red Raiders took a step back in 2011, a year after a loaded team with four NCAA Division I signees won the program's third consecutive Division II-AA state title. Chandler and coach Heather Ott said that although they didn't have the finish they wanted last season, they took a step in the right direction.
"I thought that we spent last year building things up," Chandler said. "It was very satisfying because last season was our doing, and not that of the superstars."
Said Ott: "This year's group has a lot of potential, and we have to see where that potential takes us. There are a lot of teams that are really strong; our expectation is to do what we can do, because we can't control what others do.
"I think that last year's experience gave our seniors the confidence to be go-to girls, and they have an added confidence in their roles as senior leaders."