Season Preview: Cross Country
"Things are going pretty well," West Fargo cross country coach Joe Bailey said, when asked about his team's preseason prognosis. "Everyone seems to be healthy. We're watching things as they go to make sure that we progress."
Though players' health obviously is important, it's often downplayed when looking to an upcoming season as aspects such as the loss of seniors or returning veterans usually take precedence.
But at the wrong place and the wrong time, sick athletes can spell the difference between climbing the podium and going home empty-handed - especially when those individuals are team leaders.
Look no further than last season's Packers boys cross country team, which slipped to ninth place at the state tournament after being pegged to finish either No. 1 or 2 all season.
All-Conference seniors Jamison Gehrig and Spencer Uetz, who led the Packers through much of the year, collapsed during the state tournament before completing the race. Though they recovered, Bailey said each was suffering from the flu, but had decided to race anyway. Gehrig and Uetz likely would have earned All-State first team honors had they been able to finish.
The captains placed first and second at the East Region tournament and paced West Fargo to its second straight title. That alone could have been foresight to the state tournament, but nobody accounted for illness.
Where last season's Packers boys team slipped because of the loss of its Nos. 1 and 2 runners, this season's team should fare much better thanks to an important characteristic: depth.
In fact, Bailey sees deep talent on both the boys and girls teams.
"They really push each other during practice," he said. "I think we'll have a pretty good group; in the meets too, we should come in packed up. (Having depth) certainly helps with team scores."
Bailey explained that, even if the Packers do not consistently have first- or second-place finishers, they have a bulk of runners capable of ending near the top, thus garnering valuable team points.
Incoming senior captains Luke Johnson and Tom Kuehn will take the helm this season, and set the pace for the Packers. Johnson finished 19th at last year's conference tournament behind Nate Peterson's fifth-place finish. Peterson also will be a senior this year.
Darin Baltezore is another Packer with power. The incoming sophomore just missed All-EDC honors after finishing 21st at the conference meet. Bailey also pointed to Austin Albrecht, Nathan Aswege and Erich Hahn as others to watch.
Whereas the boys lost Uetz and Gehrig, the girls also were hit with the loss of their top senior runner in Ellie Grooters. She placed fourth at last season's conference meet, and was named Most Dedicated on the team alongside Uetz.
But while the boys may have to prove their strength to the rest of the conference, the West Fargo girls should once again be the team to beat in the EDC.
"We have several runners who are pushing the pack," Bailey said. "After that, it's hard to pick out one or two. But we have many runners that are running very well."
Those runners include Alissa Mears, Jessica Rosenau and Christine Baltezore. A junior this season, Mears took first place at the East Region tournament, and 14th at state. Sophomores Rosenau and Baltezore also were standouts, finishing back-to-back (sixth for Baltezore and seventh for Rosenau) at the EDC, and 15th (Rosenau) and 18th (Baltezore) at state.
"We're sitting pretty solid there," Bailey said, of the girls team. "It'll be a fun season.
"But I'm looking forward to the kids competing, and we'll just have to see what happens as the season goes on."