Weeks of grueling heat have made preseason training even tougher than usual for high school cross country teams in the Baton Rouge area.

Along with the cool temperatures that followed last weekend’s rain came a realization - the cross country season is finally here.

St. Michael the Archangel will host its annual Bayou Boogie Invitational on Saturday at Highland Road Park. The 40-team meet will give teams a chance to answer some key questions going into a year that brings notable changes.

“You’ve got the top two runners back and I expect both Catholic and St. Joseph’s Academy to be as good as we’re used to seeing them,” St. Michael coach Neil Borel said. “We graduated our top guys, and I have eight or nine guys who are pretty much interchangeable. Our girls have one senior back. There are other teams that are like us.”

The more things change, the more others remain the same. Seniors Matt Rice and Anna Katherine Devitt return to lead the local contingent.

Rice, of Runnels, won the Gatorade award given to Louisiana’s top runner last year and also was the Outstanding Boys Runner on the All-Metro team. Christian Life’s Devitt was the Outstanding Girls Runner on the All-Metro squad.

As juniors, both were metro and state champions. Rice won his second straight Class 2A title with the top 3-mile time of 15 minutes, 33.50 seconds in any classification at last year’s Louisiana High School Athletic Association State Cross Country Meet in Natchitoches. Devitt won her third straight Class 1A title in 18:53.35.

There are other top returnees. St. Joseph’s Academy and Catholic return several runners. SJA was the Class 5A girls champion, while Catholic was the 5A boys runner-up.

Episcopal won girls and boys titles in 2A last season. The West Feliciana boys, of 3A, and 1A Ascension Catholic boys posted runner-up finishes. St. Michael placed third in the boys and girls divisions in 4A.

“Last year was such a rare and special year,” St. Joseph’s coach Sam Young said. “Of course, the challenge this year is to be even better and that won’t be easy. We know there is plenty of competition out there, especially in 5A with the New Orleans area teams, Dominican, Mount Carmel and St. Scholastica. We’re excited about getting out there this weekend to see where we are.”

The Redstickers put their top five runners in top 14 to win the 5A title last season. Andree Laville, Mary LaHaye and Kassidy Noto were all top 10 finishers. Rebecca Andries and Annie Peek are other SJA leaders.

“We have some guys back, but we also have some holes to fill,” Catholic coach Pete Boudreaux said. “We’ve got 71 guys out for cross country, so the numbers are there. It’s question of how that translates into depth and who can step into the roles we need filled.”

The Bears’ Cole Stafford was the 5A runner-up last season. Joseph St. Cyr also had a top 10 finish. Brian Primeaux and Ben Ross are other leaders. Ross is sidelined with an injury and hopes to return in two to three weeks.

Hayden Palmer, a 17th-place finisher at state last season, is the top returnee for the St. Michael boys, along with Peter Chol. Jenna Anders, a 21st-place finisher at state, helps lead the St. Michael girls.

Class 3A includes some top individuals. Parkview Baptist’s Troy Porter and Dainon Miles were top 15 finishers. West Feliciana’s sophomore-oriented squad returns a number a key performers. Michael Sullivan, placed 19th at the state meet last fall for WFHS.

PBS’ Morgan Schuetz was the 3A girls runner-up, while McKinsey Lambert placed 20th for a WFHS girls squad that placed fifth, two spots ahead of PBS.

Both Episcopal teams graduated key seniors from a year ago. The Knights return three boys who placed in the top 10 in 2A - Christian Johnson (fifth), Ben Murrey (seventh) and James McGaugh (ninth).

“It’s one of those things where we’ll have to see who will be in the those four to seven spots,” Episcopal boys coach Claney Duplechain said. “It’s a good competition. We know 2A is going to be very competitive. But I like this group. Their work ethic is good.”

Katie Keller, who placed ninth a year ago, and Elizabeth Prutz are the top returnees for the EHS girls. The Dunham School’s Taylor Schultz finished seventh at the 2A meet.

Zachary Capello, who placed fourth overall, returns to lead the 1A Ascension Catholic boys. CLA posted a fifth-place finish among 1A girls with Devitt and teammate Breanna Elliott taking the top two spots.

Episcopal girls coach Eddie Cole encouraged his team with words that others may take to heart during a season that stretches into November.

“We may not be where we want to be today,” Cole said. “But if we keep working hard we have a chance to be where we want to be at the end.”