The roster numbers increased while the times decreased, and both signs point to the Charleston Catholic girls track and field team finishing among the Class A elite this season.
Following a fifth-place finish at last year’s state meet, including a 4x800-meter relay title and several individual point-scoring performances, the Irish return with plenty of talent and athletes poised to improve upon last season’s mark.
“Right now, I’ve got so many girls, I’m trying to figure out where I can put them all,” Catholic coach Scott Welch said. “We’re going to be pretty good this year at track.”
“I’m hoping to do better. I’m not sure we have the firepower to beat (three-time defending team champion) Williamstown. They’ve got so much depth and things. I don’t know. We’ll have to see how things play out and if we’re healthy, and all those things that can happen, but we’re vastly better than we were last year.”
The team’s strength lies in its distance and middle-distance runners in sophomores Payton Mullen and Peyton Keener, as well as junior Quincy McKown, who each return from the winning 4x800 team. Each of the three girls also placed individually in the 800 and mile at last year’s state championship meet.
In addition to the talented trio, freshman Hannah Gacek will run her first track season after leading the Irish to a second-place finish during the past cross country state championship.
Though distance running leads the program, Welch said Catholic will contend in sprint events, too.
“We do have some good speed,” he said. “We don’t have the “one girl,” by herself, who can score in the top six in the 100 or 200, but our 4x100 was second last year in states and they’re all back. Then, the 4x200, which was in the top six, I think, they’re all back, plus with these new girls it’s very competitive.
In field events, Welch said he expects to score well, too, with seniors Gina Marks (shot put) and Catherine Casingal (pole vault).
Also in Class A, Buffalo’s Brianne Cantley returns after reaching states in the 100 and 200.
Across the Kanawha Valley, like Catholic, AAA squad Hurricane will lead with its distance runners, as the Redskins finished second in cross country at the state meet last fall.
“We got all our normal distance girls, our strong ones,” Hurricane coach Jason Henley said. “We’re getting to be a little veteran heavy. Tori Dent comes back after a year off. She’s looking for big things in her senior season. We return two of the four members from our (state runner-up) 4x800 from last year, but also get Tori back who was on it the year before. We’re strong on the distance side and feeling good about where we are.”
Henley, who directs Hurricane’s cross country team, officially coaches the boys track team. He will provide advice to the team’s distance runners, but said he looks forward to coaching alongside first-year girls track coach Shellie Young, also the school’s girls soccer coach.
In addition to Dent’s return, Hurricane looks forward to the full health of junior Joie Johnston, a key cross country contributor who missed the state meet with stress fractures in both legs.
Senior Ally Lawhon, sophomore Abbie Short and freshman Anna Gordon will also be key contributors among Hurricane’s middle distance, distance and relay events. Gordon finished seventh overall at the cross country state meet to earn All-State honors.
Audrey Barber will lead the Redskins in the hurdles, while basketball standout Abby Watson returns as the state’s runner-up in discus. Lauren London will look to return to state in the pole vault, too.
Hurricane’s Putnam County rival Winfield also expects a solid season.
“We don’t have a super star,” Winfield girls track coach David Bailey said. “I have a bunch of kids who work hard and really understand “team.” These kids, this year, are working, they’re just working hard.”
Winfield placed second in the 4x100 and 4x200 last year, with solid finishes in the 4x400 and 4x800, too.
Senior Barkley Castro returns after winning the 800 individual state title last year. Castro and fellow cross country runner Rachel Englund again figure to be among Class AAA’s top middle distance and distance threats. Sophomore cross country runner Brittney McMillion excelled in track as a freshman, but will not run this season, Bailey said.
The Generals will look to assemble a solid hurdling crew led by junior Josee Erlandson, who claimed sixth place last year in the 300 hurdles. Mackenzie Arthur and Micharae Thompson excelled at hurdles last season, but will not run this year. In their place, Bailey said soccer players Jayne Lawman and Jordan Pauley and freshman Lauyrn Bady will join the hurdlers.
Other soccer-players-turned-track-athletes Katie Bryant, Lauren Prevette and Brooke Humphreys will also contribute, Bailey said.
In sprints, Anika Shah represents the team’s top returner, with M.E. Zulauf and Sydney Hancock also key runners.
Bailey added he expects big results from newcomers Rachel Sneeringer (sprints) and Carly Hinkle (high jump)
Elsewhere in Class AAA, St. Albans junior Anacia Hines returns after reaching state in the 100, 200 and 100 hurdles.
Behind University’s Amelia Paladino, Capital junior Peyton Panger expects to be among the state’s best in both the mile and two mile.
At Cabell Midland, Jakeya Perrin returns after reaching state in both the 200 and 400 as a freshman. Fellow Knight Makenzi Niebergall leads the team in hurdles.
In field events, George Washington’s Lillie Jacobs figures among the Valley’s best in discus.
For AA, Herbert Hoover junior Emilee Henry placed top four at the state championship in the 100, 200 and 400 last season. This year, she’ll again be among the Huskies’ and state’s top sprinters.
Henry’s teammate and fellow junior Bailey Aab placed fourth at last year’s state meet.