Catholic, St. Joseph’s dominate Grizzly Relays _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Catholic's Jeffrey Kelley is track and cross country standout.

There’s a long-running success story that links Baton Rouge to Natchitoches. The high school cross country season begins with a series of high-caliber meets in Baton Rouge.

It typically concludes with local teams/individuals racing to prominence at the All State Sugar Bowl/LHSAA State Cross Country meet in Natchitoches. There’s no reason to expect this season will be any different.

Defending Class 5A champion St. Joseph’s Academy had four girls cover the three-mile Highland Road Park course in under 20 minutes on Saturday in St. Michael’s Bayou Boogie Invitational, which drew a record number of participants. Two-time All-Metro MVP Annie Hill, a junior, won the event in 18 minutes, 58.88 seconds.

Episcopal’s boys have won 19 straight Class 2A titles. Ascension Catholic’s boys have won four straight Class 1A titles. The ACHS and Episcopal girls were state runner-ups. The ACHS girls won in 2013 with most of those runners still competing. Catholic High has won 16 boys state titles, with 10 runner-up finishes. St. Michael has won its share of titles in 4A.

Up for most local teams is Episcopal’s 37th annual Round Table Run set Saturday at Highland Road Park. The girls varsity runs at 8:20 a.m. and boys varsity race follows at 9.

“The sport of cross country has grown so much in the last 15 years and the competition is very tough,” Catholic coach Pete Boudreaux said. “The number of girls competing is so much more than it used to be.”

“I think Baton Rouge cross country is special because we have a great number of coaches who truly care about the sport,” EHS boys coach Claney Duplechin said. “We all work hard to make the Highland Park a great venue for our runners. Our runners know all the other runners from Baton Rouge and this makes for a great atmosphere at meets.”

Episcopal girls coach Eddie Cole said running in BR is like competing in a state meet each week.

“If you can compete in Baton Rouge, you can compete against anyone in the state,” Cole said, noting the list of experienced coaches. “Cross country matters here.”

Catholic seniors Jeffrey Kelley, the 2013 All-Metro MVP, and David Toups will lead the Bears. Kelley (15:36.28) was third and Toups sixth Saturday.

SJA coach Mark LaHaye said he has high expectations for his team.

“We’re hoping to repeat as state champions,” he said. “We’ll have to continue to work hard. We know there is some tough competition. Our youth will have to step up.”

SJA has just three senior runners with a large junior class. Two freshmen, including Lauren Hendry, are currently top seven. Gabbi Chauvin, Hendry and Jennifer Bennett ran under 20 minutes.

Episcopal’s boys will be led by senior Alex Dunbar and junior Kris Jackson, the defending Class 2A individual champion.

“Although still very young, I feel we can compete at a high level this year,” Duplechin said. “I want our runners to believe they can run strong in big races.”

Sophomores Alicia Stamey and Hayley Schwab, returning All-Metro runners, lead EHS girls. “Our expectations are high as we return all of our girls from last year’s state runner-up team,” Cole said. “We have one of our largest squads with 45 girls in grades 6-12.”

St. Michael’s girls and boys teams were fourth at the Class 4A meet last fall. Juniors Alex Landry and Rachel Pendleton and freshman Sara Lavistida are key runners for the girls. Reed Callegan and Luke Hebert are key runners for the boys.

“We have our largest team in five years with 65 runners,” SMHS coach Neil Borel said.

Ascension Catholic coach Rocky Capello said his girls team has the potential to be the best one he’s coached. Sophomore Stephanie Breaux, the defending Class 1A state champion, and Sophie Daigle, are top runners. Thomas Daigle, Logan Thibodeaux and Hayes Rousseau are boys to watch. ACHS graduated 2014 All-Metro MVP Zach Capello, who is now at Yale.

“I think the boys and girls are shaping up pretty good,” Rocky Capello said. “We ran in the Mobile Challenge last weekend and put up some good times.”