The annual state cross country meet closes the harrier campaign on Saturday at Sandhills Research Park. There should be several significant Midlands storylines at the season finale.
The top story, of course, is Lexingtons quest to become the first four-time Class 4A boys champion. The Wildcats return four of the five scoring runners who helped turn in one of the great state performances in history last season. Lexington had four runners finish in the top six places on the way to a 34-point team score the second lowest tally in the big-school boys division in history. Moreover, the four Wildcat all-state runners all hit the finish line in less than 16 minutes, becoming the first team ever to have that many sub-16 minute runners at Sandhills. The only other 4A boys performance that compares is Mauldins one-for-the-ages showing in 1984 when the Mavericks produced a near-perfect winning score of 20 points and had all five scoring runners come in below 16 minutes. The only mitigating factor is those times came on a much faster course Hilton Field at Fort Jackson.
The returning Lexington runners are juniors Tony Morales and Zack Langston and seniors Blake White and Erik Wendt. Morales finished third a year ago, fourth as a freshman. Langston followed Morales across the line in fourth place and White earned his second all-state team spot by finishing sixth. White has a chance to become the first 4A boys runner to have a scoring role on four state championship teams.
The Lexington girls team has been inching closer to the top since Hall of Fame coach Catherine Lempesis took command. The Wildcats returned to the top 10 for the first time in eight years with a ninth-place finish in 2009, moved up to fifth in 2010 and was the runner-up behind Wando last season. The Cats enter ranked No. 1 in the final regular season coachs poll, and are thus favored to end the Warrior reign and claim their first state championship. The teams split two meetings this season. Wando prevailed at the Coaches Classic on the state course, and Lexington turned the tables on the Warriors two weeks later at the Lake Murray Invitational.
Morales and Langston are the best Midlands bets for individual glory in 4A, although White, Chris Stafford of Dutch Fork and Blythewoods Michael Lantz could make things interesting.
In Class 3A, most of the area attention will be on the girls race. Chapin enters ranked No. 1 and Airport senior Megan Stahlberger has one last chance to become the first cross country champion from the school in 39 years.
Chapin finished in first place at the Upper State qualifier last weekend and freshman Samantha Koenig was the individual winner. Second-ranked James Island was the top team at the Lower State qualifier. The Trojans beat Chapin in the two head-to-head meetings this season (Coaches Classic and Lake Murray). Defending champion Eastside and always Daniel are other potential contenders. The Eagles are looking to bag their fourth state championship. Chapin won back-to-back 2A titles in its final two seasons at the 2A level. The Eagles first title was in the Class 3A division in 1992 before 2A was granted a separate division at state.
Stahlberger, who finished second at state for the second straight year last season, has only one goal left to cross off. The Eagles all-time great has had an impressive senior season leading up to the finale. The four-time all-state runner has yet to lose to a 3A opponent. The schools first state champion is Terry Baldwin, who finished first in the all-comers boys race in 1973.
Chapins boys team, which is ranked No. 9, hopes to return to the top 10 after missing the cut for the first time since 1988 a year ago.
Eau Claire senior Omar Sharif and the Pelion Panthers figure to be the top local stories in Class 2A.
Sharif is the defending champion and plans to become the first two-time state cross country champion from the Richland One school district. He would also like to become only the second 2A champ to break 16 minutes on the demanding Sandhills course. Broomes Stefan Shealy did it twice. The record for the fastest winning state time at Sandhills is 15:10 a mark shared by Chapins Luke Lovelace 2007) and Dutch Forks Roland Hakes (2010). He clocked in at 16:21 on the way to the title a year ago, and covered the same course in 16:36 early in the season while winning a division title at the Coaches Classic.
The Panthers girls are ranked No. 4 entering the state finale, and the boys stand at No. 8. Waccamaw has top billing in both divisions. Of note, Panther senior star Nevada Minard, who won a state championship as a freshman, has an excellent chance to become a rare six-time all-state runner with one more quality performance.