As good as area cross country teams were in 2012, the upcoming season may prove to be even better.
Northeast Georgia crowned two individual state champions and four teams finished in the top three in their respective classifications in 2012. Area coaches, however, feel they were building to this season.
"We were real young last year on both teams but had a solid season," said Flowery Branch coach Jimmy Sorrells, whose Lady Falcons finished third and the boys second in Class AAAAA last season. "I expect big things from both teams this year. This was the year I thought we were building for so last year was very pleasing."
White County coach Sam Borg said much the same thing after his Lady Warriors, behind state champion Jenna Gearing, finished third in Class AAA.
"We knew Jenna would have a chance but to take third as a team was better than we expected coming into the season," Borg said. "This year we're looking to get closer to the top two teams and for the boys to get back in the state meet."
After second and third place finishes at state last year respectively, both Flowery Branch programs are definite contenders to the crown in 2013.
The boys did not graduate a single runner from last year, where they finished a distant second to McIntosh at the state meet. However, Sorrells said he is expecting big things from his group, which may be the deepest team in program history, including three state title teams in the last seven years.
They finished third in their opening meet at Athens Christian last weekend
"We can go 14 or 15 deep with this group," Sorrells said. "It also may be the hardest working group I've ever had. I have a good idea about our top seven right now but there are five or six others that could get in the starting group on any given day. The competition is fierce."
Seniors James Slavik, Nick Ashmead, Taylor Fiorello, and Brian Young all return. Junior Miguel Martinez and sophomores Jake Schubert, Grant O'Callahan, and Shaun Olmstead are the early starters. Junior Clayton Thayer, a starter most of last year, junior Josh Eldred, and seniors Reid Doster, Sam Crane, and Chris Olmstead all could crack the starting lineup.
"This group can definitely compete for a state title," Sorrells said. "They have improved from last year and are getting better every day. The goal is to be peaking when you get to the state meet. That's our focus right now."
The story is much the same for the Lady Falcons. Coming off a third place state finish in 2012, Sorrells said depth will be a strong suit for this year's squad, which can go as deep as 10 to crack the starting lineup. The most notable loss from last year was Ellie Tanner, who is slated to run for North Georgia this year.
Juniors Lauren Kirk and Cassie Ward and senior Kaylie Tanner (no relation) return to lead the group. Sorrells said the rest of the starting lineup will come from a group of six or seven runners that are virtually even.
"It would be hard to give a starting lineup because I expect it to change every meet," he said. "Lauren, Cassie, and Kaylie had great track seasons last year and I fully expect them to be the leaders. But this is the deepest girls team we've ever had and they all work extremely hard so I could be surprised every week."
The Lady Falcons are coming off an eighth-place showing at Athens Christian but Sorrells said he was more than pleased with their overall finish.
"We have some things to work on but I feel this is definitely a team that can compete for a podium finish (top four) at state," he said. "If we can improve and peak at the right time, we have a shot at a state title."
Both Flowery Branch teams are considered favorites to win Region 8-AAAAA but should be challenged by Winder-Barrow and Loganville.
For White County, Gearing, now a sophomore, will certainly be among the favorites to win an individual state title. Borg said he is hoping a year's experience will find his group closing the gap on St. Pius and Blessed Trinity.
The Lady Warriors, who won Region 7-AAA in 2012, return all seven of their top runners -- Gearing, seniors Caitlyn Gearing and Chloe Maddox, juniors Kristen Mitchell and Megan Norris, sophomores Sinead O'Bryant and Chandler Mauney -- from last year.
"Our expectations are very high," Borg said. "Last year was nice but we're putting it behind us. We have to prove ourselves again out on the trail. But, they've all made progress and hopefully we can get closer to (St. Pius and Blessed Trinity)."
For the White County boys, seven is a number they have been concentrating on since the 2012 region meet.
"We missed the state meet by seven points and I think the guys are really focused on that. They remember it," Borg said.
The White County boys also return all seven of their top runners. Junior Austin Thompson leads a group with just one senior, Bryce Burkett. Five sophomores -- Matthew Bouchard, Kolin Harkins, Whit Mauney, Destin Milum, Francisco Jose -- give Borg a young but talented core.
"They have been training better and have already made a lot of improvements," he said. "North Hall is definitely the team to beat but we feel we're right in the mix with everyone else to get into the state meet. We're just trying to make sure we don't peak too soon and are ready for the region meet."
For North Hall, the boys return five or their top seven runners from last year's third place finish in the Class AAA state meet. Coach Drew Rogers expects his group to challenge once again.
"We expect our boys team to be pretty strong this year. We lost our top two runners, but had a pretty strong top seven last year," Rogers said.
The Trojans also have young talent with just two seniors in the starting group. Zack Hill and Bailey Pless are the only returning seniors and will be joined by juniors Bryce Schuebert, who finished eighth at state in 2012, Quintin Miles, and Seth Chapman. Sophomore Corson Teasley and Tommy Johnston should round out the starting rotation.
The Trojans had a solid opening to the season last weekend taking second at the NEGA Invitational championship, finishing only behind Class AAAAAA Etowah. Schuebert was fifth, Miles was sixth, and Hill finished eighth.
The Lady Trojans, will have a tough time duplicating last year's fifth-place showing at the Class AAA state meet after graduating five of their top seven runners. They do return junior Makayla Ellis, who placed sixth last year at state, and senior Caroline Dickey.
The rest of the starting group will be young. Juniors Samantha Diosdado and Emily Barnes will be joined by sophomores Mary McGarry and Mary Seid and freshman Mattie Bohanon.
Ellis finished 11th last week at the NEGA Invitational.
"We will be very young this year on the girls side," Rogers said. "But they trained very hard over the summer and put in a lot of miles. We hope to see the results as the season progresses."
The Chestatee boys are looking for their second straight Region 8-AAAA title and will still have a relatively young and talented group for coach Mark Dunn to work with.
Jason Dang is the only senior among the top returners. Junior Jack Carnes and sophomore Logan Brock had breakout seasons last year. Juniors Logan Allen and Fletcher Siegfried, along with seniors Caleb Harlon and Trevor Brandon, should compete for the other top spots.
"They have the potential to make another run at the region title and place at state," Dunn said. "The key will be how well our fifth and sixth runners improve during the season."
The Lady War Eagles also will be looking to defend their Region 8-AAAA title and a fourth-place finish at the Class AAAA meet a year ago. They will be led by seniors Sarah Beth English and Maggee Wilson. Shelby Bennett and Abbie Cliché give Chestatee a solid top four. Dunn also said freshman Merrie Barnett could be a rookie to watch out for as the season progresses.
"They girls are much the same as the boys. They have a lot of potential and should be able to make a run at another region title and another podium finish at the state meet," he said. "It will come down to how well our fifth and sixth runners do."
Defending Class AA girls state champion Emma Garrison of Union County, now a sophomore, should once again be a favorite to win the Class AA individual title for the Lady Panthers.