High school cross country is about numbers.
The team with the lowest score based on total place finishes wins. The runner with the fastest three-mile time wins. Schools from the largest classifications can dominate.
That’s why Class 5A Catholic High and St. Joseph’s Academy are expected to lead the Baton Rouge pack as the season begins Saturday with meets at Highland Road Park and in St. Francisville.
“Catholic returns everybody, and they finished second to St. Paul’s in 5A last year,” Episcopal coach Claney Duplechin said. “I think they’re out in front of everybody else. I think Ascension Catholic is No. 2, even though they’re in 1A based on the quality they return.”
By contrast, St. Joseph’s doesn’t have a ton of experience. But the Redstickers, who finished third in 5A, return the area’s top runner in sophomore Annie Hill.
Ascension Catholic’s Zach Capello and last year’s All-Metro MVP Jeffrey Kelley of Catholic, help top the list of returning boys competitors. Capello has won three straight 1A individual titles.
St. Michael the Archangel’s Bayou Boogie Invitational at Highland and West Feliciana’s Cross Country Relay start the season Saturday in which lots of possibilities could unfold.
Baton Rouge’s most notable numbers belongs to Episcopal, which has won 18 straight boys state titles in Class 2A, tying a national record. The Knights and Class 1A Ascension Catholic, which swept boys and girls state titles, were the only locals to win state titles in 2013. Others want to join that number.
“We’ve got Annie back and she’s healthy and as determined as ever,” St. Joseph’s coach Mark Lahaye said. “Sarah Catherine LeBlanc is our No. 2. Right now we have 13 girls competing for the top seven spots. Last year we didn’t get first or second, but one of our goals is to go for it (5A title) again.”
Some of the state’s top meets are set locally long before the teams head to Northwestern State for the Louisiana High School Athletic Association’s State Meet in November. Episcopal’s Round Table Run (Sept. 13), the St. Joseph’s Academy Invitational (Oct. 4) and the Catholic High Invitational (Oct. 11) are Highland-based meets that typically are among Louisiana’s largest.
For now, the coaches see other numbers. Catholic High coach Pete Boudreaux expects Kelley and Pierce Hill, the older brother of Annie Hill, to help lead the Bears, who have a 75-member team.
“What it comes down to is who’s going to step in and take those other roles,” Boudreaux said. “We’re going to rely on guys who haven’t been major contributors before to take those roles. Who runs in which spot is probably going to change as the season goes on.”
St. Michael looks to start another championship cycle. SMHS won its last 4A girls title two years ago, coach Neil Borel said, but a group of sophomores led by Rachel Pendleton provides plenty of potential. A mix of seniors and sophomores that includes senior Keenan Buie and sophomore Alex Landry are part of the Warriors drive to claim a 4A trophy for the first time in four years.
Episcopal’s teams offer compelling storylines. The Knights have a youthful 60-member boys squad. The EHS girls have their own youth movement.
Jack Bowman is the Knights’ only senior with extensive experience. Alex Dunbar, who placed third at the 2A state meet, is the key junior.
“It is going to be a different year for us,” Duplechin said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys who will need to contribute, and they need time to grow. We’ll be a different team at the end of the season than we are at the start. Winning (state) will be a challenge.”
The Episcopal girls are led by Alicia Stamey and University High transfer Hayley Schwab, who sat out last season. EHS girls coach Eddie Cole said a group of youngsters is battling for other spots.
Ascension Catholic returns a base of runners led by Capello, the son of Bulldogs coach Rocky Capello. The senior will take an official visit to LSU this weekend and is set to visit Yale, Princeton and Penn this fall. Senior Jordan Zeringue and freshman Thomas Daigle are also key returnees.
Rocky Capello’s ACHS girls are led by freshman Stephanie Breaux and sophomore Sophie Daigle. Newcomer Gabbie Klack, a track sprinter, also ranks in the ACHS top five.