The weather has escaped a constant run of temperatures in the mid-90’s and given way to more favorable conditions for the distance runners of Wyoming.
Shoes begin to hit the trail in a more organized manner as practices start Monday for the 2017 cross country season, less than two weeks before the season-opening meets.
Teams will be spread across the state in the opening weekend with some participating in Green River, others in Newcastle, and the biggest of the opening slate occurring on Casper Mountain with the annual Bear Trap Invite.
The state meet, once again on the campus of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Sheridan, is just shy of two months after the first meets of the season, giving runners little time to achieve their best marks.
There’s little certainty going into this season but all questions will be affirmed by late October.
Among the uncertainties gives way for some of the top storylines to watch throughout the season. Here is a list of some to keep an eye on this autumn:
For four years Jackson’s Anna Gibson was the premier distance runner in the state. She won the state title twice with the Broncs, held back by a fifth-place finish in her sophomore season that was marred by injury and a third-place finish in her junior year when she suffered from anemia.
She also set the state record with a time of 17 minutes, 35.20 seconds at last year’s state meet.
Now, however, Gibson is running at Brown University, which opens the field for the rest of the competition in Class 4A.
Cheyenne Central’s Aubrey Frentheway is the presumptive favorite after her runner-up finish to Gibson in the 2016 state meet, but Cheyenne East’s Mackenzie Marler was just behind her in third to cap her sophomore season.
Or the torch could be passed to Gibson’s former teammate, Mattie Geddes, who finished fourth last season as a freshman.
Henry to repeat?
It’s no surprise that someone from the Henry family won the state championship last year.
Just like his brothers, Jonah and Christopher, before him, Philip Henry won the 4A state meet last season after overtaking former Natrona standout Garrett Condelario on the final turn.
He returns for his senior season to lead Laramie with the prospect of an individual and team repeat a very real possibility. Teammate Albert Steiner is also back after a third-place finish, giving Laramie the top two returning finishers from last year.
Rock Springs’ Parker Jones had the next-best finish of runners expected to be back on the course for the 2017 season, having placed sixth at the state meet.
Overall, it looks like a favorable season for the Plainsmen to win a sixth consecutive team championship, but Henry’s bid to finish on top again could be most contested by one of his teammates.
Star Valley supremacy
As dominant as the Laramie boys have been in 4A, Star Valley has been just as elite in 3A.
The Braves accomplished a 1-2-3 finish at last year’s state meet and — wait for it — all three are back this season. Shane Henderson won the gold as a junior last year, Asefa Wetzel earned silver as a sophomore and Wesley Kallgren took the bronze to cap his junior season.
Star Valley won the team title with 19 points and second-place Cody was nowhere close with 87.
Cody, Mountain View, Lander and Worland all return their best finishers from 2016 for the best chance at upending the trail titans.
However, Wetzel, Henderson and Kallgren also finished 1-2-3 in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs at the state track meet, so the possibility of surpassing any of them seems slim.
Among the big surprises at last year’s championship meet was the rise of the freshman in Class 2A. Hailey Jones of Moorcroft won the girls’ race while Saratoga-Encampment’s Reid Schroeder won the boys’ race comfortably.
So the question becomes can they stay at the top of the results sheet or is there another set of freshmen waiting to accomplish the same feat?
Erin Griess, a top-10 finisher for Pine Bluffs-Burns last season as a freshman, will likely contend to be the returning 2A girls team champion’s top runner in 2017.
Then there’s Tori Wheeler of Sundance and Tongue River’s Kalie Bocek and Chloe Schilling, all of whom finished in the top 15 as freshmen last year.
There’s also no telling which freshmen will pop up throughout the season to make their own impact at the state meet.
Kelly Walsh drop?
The Trojans were 12 points away from winning their first boys cross-country team championship in school history, finishing behind Laramie. Hopes of a repeat performance will be put on hold for at least the start of the season, considering what Kelly Walsh has to replace.
Kelly Walsh’s top four runners from last season all graduated, leaving Josh Pierantoni, Ned Murray and Josh Martin as the top returning runners.
While those three will be improved in 2017, filling out the roster with two more runners will be valuable to the Trojans’ success.
Meanwhile, the girls’ team might be the more successful Trojans squad.
The KW girls carry the momentum of a sixth-place finish from last season, along with four of their five top runners returning, into this season. Michaela Gromer and Nya Farnsworth are Kelly Walsh’s two best finishers from state and both will be back in green and white this year.
Moorcroft, which has not won a girls cross-country championship since 1994 and finished second to Pine Bluffs-Burns last season, has all the makings of a team primed to end that drought.
State champion Hailey Jones returns to lead a team that was comprised solely of freshmen and sophomores last season. Not to mention the Wolves only had the minimum four runners at the state meet.
Junior Jordan Jones, who finished third last year, also returns for the Wolves, while Sydnee Williams and Charmayne DeLong each will run as sophomores this year.
Each one will have to further themselves this season to beat Pine Bluffs-Burns, which loses just one runner from last year’s team.
Still, the Wolves are dangerously close to ending the program’s title drought.
Gold for Eagles?
Neither boys nor girls cross-country teams at Tongue River have ever won a team state championship. The trophy case may fill this season, however, as last season’s freshmen bloom into sophomores.
Jacob McIntyre and Cooper Volmer both finished in the top 15 while Kobe DeWitt and Jett Walker were top 40 last season, each one in their freshman year on the boys’ team.
Then there’s Kalie Bocek and Chloe Schilling, who were both top 14 in the girls’ state meet as freshmen. Macey McArthur, Holly Hutchinson and Laura Walters also return to give the Eagles a chance to bring home a trophy.
Both teams have as good of a shot as any at the end of the year, but the girls have to go through Pine Bluffs-Burns and Moorcroft while the boys have to contend with the likes of Saratoga-Encampment and Wyoming Indian.