Kevin McCoy ran cross country at River Hill in the mid-2000s and has been head coach of the Centennial girls team since 2011, so he’s very familiar with the level of competition in Howard County.
“It’s really hard running in Howard County,” McCoy said. “We like to be one of the better counties in the state of Maryland for running, and I think we’re consistently within that top three or four range.”
The postseason results back up these claims. In the past decade alone, programs around the county have combined to win 11 state championships — five on the boys’ side and six on the girls’. Sixteen more programs (nine boys and seven girls) concluded their season as the state runner-up during that span. And to find the last time a county program did not finish in the top two of the state meet, you have to go all the way back to 1981.
This November, the county will look to not only extend that streak to 38 straight seasons but also crown its first state champion since the River Hill boys team in 2016. Long before then, all 14 schools will compete against one another at the Howard County Invitational on Sept. 8, setting the stage for what many coaches believe will be an up-for-grabs county race.
Other notable races this season include the Bull Run Invitational on Sept. 22 and the league championships at Centennial on Oct. 24. Regional meets will be Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, while all state championship races will occur on Nov. 10 at Hereford High School.
“While the county lost some very talented runners to graduation last year, I don’t think there will be a drop off in talent,” Howard boys coach Zachary Dickerson said. “The battle for the team titles, for both genders, is up in the air. River Hill, Atholton, Howard and Centennial all have teams and returning runners who can contend for the title, and it should make for an exciting season and county championship meet.”
The Howard boys and River Hill girls took home county titles last season but each lost their No. 1 runner to graduation.
The Lions, who captured their first league crown in 40 years, will be without 2017 Howard County Times boys Runner of the Year Nick Deamer and five of their top seven runners overall. But do not assume the Lions will take a step back. Initially concerned this might be a rebuilding year, Dickerson has seen several of his younger runners make strides during the outdoor track season and over the summer. Between first-team All-County runner Alex Strawley and fellow seniors Tim Goulet and Cole Partridge, the Lions actually produced faster time trials and scrimmage times than last year, Dickerson said.
“We have great leadership and personality on this team,” Dickerson added, “which will help guide this team to once again contend for a county championship.”
River Hill has won the past two girls county championships in large part because of two-time girls Runner of the Year Jasmine Tiamfook and her back-to-back league titles. With Tiamfook and freshman Faith Meininger leading the charge last season — Meininger finished four tenths of a second behind Tiamfook at counties and placed fifth at states — the Hawks went on to win a regional title before finishing as the 2A state runner-up behind Hereford.
Meininger returns to River Hill as the favorite to win this year’s individual girls county title, but without Tiamfook coach Paul Hugus will be looking for newcomers and underclassmen to step up and join the likes of Meininger, senior Raaya Khleif and junior Kennedy Clark.
“On the girls side, Atholton and Centennial are really good teams,” Hugus said. “It’s one of those things that we need to figure out where we are. But I would say if we’re shooting for a top-three spot, that would be a goal to start from and build from there.”
Centennial is the reigning 3A East regional champions and brings back nearly everyone from a team that finished second at the county meet and fourth at the 3A state championships. Leading the pack will be Alison Betler, a two-time first-team All-County selection who will replace Kirsten Wikner as the team’s top runner. The Eagles also have a solid No. 2 in senior Cora Blount and will rely on seniors Christina Stavlas and Marisa Thomas and sophomores Katerina Talanova and Michelle Weaver for depth.
The end result should be a versatile group with county, regional and state title aspirations.
“You’ve got an Alison [Betler] and you’ve got a Cora [Blount] that you know that you can send up there and you go, ‘OK, let’s go tango, let’s go for that top 10 or a little higher mark,’” McCoy said. “And then I think we’ve got another core group behind that that’s going to be able to move the train along. And the 1-to-7 spread on paper might not look very good — the goal is always to have right around a minute — but that’s just going to be because you have the two to three out front and then your 4-5-6-7 that are still really, really high up, it’s just that you have the frontrunners to boot.”
Finishing second at the 3A East region meet last season was Atholton, which returns second-team All-County runner Gabriella DeGrezia and fellow senior Camryn Streib, who should be another county frontrunner. Coaching the Raiders this season will be hall of fame coach Earl Lauer. He returns to the school where he coached for 23 years between 1973 to 1996.
The Raiders have strong leadership and experience thanks to a large senior class, Lauer said, but will focus on improving the team’s depth as the season progresses.
Howard had one of the best state meet-showings out of any county program and returns everyone. Juniors Amanda Eliker and Emily Gorny, as well as sophomore Sara Kindbom, make up a trio that Dickerson believes could be one of the best in the state. After them, he said there are about 10 runners who will fight for varsity spots, enhancing team speed and endurance in the process.
As for the individual county title race, it’s jam-packed after Meininger. It seems as though DeGrezia and Streib (Atholton), Betler and Blount (Centennial), Eliker and Gorny (Howard), Khleif (River Hill) and Reservoir senior Annabel Cortez will all fight for top five finishes.
On the boys side, Atholton coach Neil Steen and his team is not settling for second place in any of the postseason meets. Steen, who helped lead the Raiders to four consecutive state runner-up finishes between 2003-06 as a runner, believes this is the best team he has coached “by far.”
“The kids are just totally determined and they never argue with anything in the workout. They do stuff on their own,” Steen said. “These kids are just totally determined and focused in addition to obviously [having] good talent.”
The Raiders have three runners fighting for the No. 1 spot: second-team All-County selection Jake Perret and fellow seniors Nick Weber and Javon Daniel, who beat Perret and Weber during a scrimmage against Blake and Sherwood on Aug. 23. Then there’s senior Ryder Neal, who Steen said might be the hardest worker on the team.
“It just makes for an easy team to coach,” Steen said. “It’s just really nice.”
River Hill claimed three straight state titles from 2014 to 2016 before settling for second at counties behind Howard and a distant third at states last fall. However, the 2018 Hawks will have a chance to return to the top.
It all starts with junior Anish Nanjappa, who earned All-County honors in each of his first two high school seasons. At the state meet last fall, Nanjappa finished with a time of 16 minutes, 27.31 seconds, nearly 40 seconds faster than the next best time among county returners. The Hawks also have experienced runners, like seniors Tommy Maloney, Chase McGeehan and Evan Ying, and younger talent, such as junior Ryan Rose and sophomore Josh Galindo.
“We’re certainly going to be in the mix in all three of those competitions — the postseason meets,” Hugus said. “I think on paper, our boys are going to stack up favorably against the other teams in the county. I think we’re one of those top two-three teams.”
Another county contender should be Centennial, which has four returning seniors — Chris Bieberich, Zack Deming, David Riina and Justin Ziegler — to go along with Jake Cole. The Eagles took a distant second at the 3A state meet a year ago, and while they lost first-team All-County honoree Greg Costello to graduation, their depth will go a long way in the postseason meets.
Individually, Nanjappa (River Hill) is the favorite going in, but coaches around the county believe Weber and Perret (Atholton), Cole (Centennial), Strawley (Howard) and seniors Frederick Eiland II (Oakland Mills) and Noah Kim (Reservoir) could all end up competing for the top spot.
Mt. Hebron and Reservoir should also be competitive in both the boys and girls, though each program is younger than in years past. However, competing against county foes week after week will only strengthen these teams going forward.
“Howard County is always one of the most competitive cross country counties in the state,” Vikings coach Paul Ulrich said. “This year will be no different.”
Here’s a closer look at the 14 cross country programs around the county:
Boys head coach: Neil Steen
Girls head coach: Earl Lauer
Boys to watch: Seniors Eric Becker, Javon Daniel, Ryder Neal, Jake Perret, Raghav Prabakaran and Nick Weber; sophomores Jameson Cavalier and Mark-Anthony Rosas; freshman Zachary Shord.
Girls to watch: Seniors Emily Brefo, Gabriella Degrezia, Maria Kaschak, Sonya Lefors, Celine Pisanic, Vitorea Sangvic, Camryn Streib and Elaine Yamamoto; junior Sara Carlisle; sophomores Kylie McNamara and Stella Yerger.
Boys head coach: Al Dodds
Girls head coach: Kevin McCoy
Boys to watch: Seniors Chris Bieberich, Zack Deming, David Riina and Justin Ziegler; sophomore Jake Cole.
Girls to watch: Seniors Alison Betler, Cora Blount, Christina Stavlas and Marisa Thomas; sophomores Katerina Talanova and Michelle Weaver.
Boys head coach: Lindsey Metzler
Girls head coach: Philip Johnson
Boys to watch: Senior Graham Dilworth; junior Matthew Leavitt; sophomore Dylan Jock.
Girls to watch: Juniors Katie Melesko and Alexis Shumate; sophomore April Smith.
Boys head coach: Michael McLain
Girls head coach: Kim Williams
Boys to watch: Senior Tommy Dowdall; sophomore Julian Basso.
Girls to watch: Sophomore Katharina Coen.
Boys head coach: Zack Dickerson
Girls head coach: Allison Follmer
Boys to watch: Seniors Tim Goulet, Cole Partridge and Alex Strawley; sophomores Kendall Phillips and Jakob Werdell.
Girls to watch: Juniors Emily Gorny and Amanda Eliker; sophomore Sara Kindbom.
Boys head coach: Kevin Lawrence
Girls head coach: Mark Lam
Boys to watch: Senior Ien Saffer; juniors Samuel Levine and Alexander Zaky; sophomore Cameron Hindle; freshman Alejandro Cabrera.
Girls to watch: Senior Jordan Almony; junior Lindsay Poler; sophomore Assata Harris; freshmen Chloe Mentz and Stephanie Tran.
Boys head coach: Richard Malt
Girls head coach: Jason Conley
Boys to watch: Senior Matthew Mellstrom; junior Brendan Glover; sophomores Max Crockett and Michael Wade.
Girls to watch: Seniors Amanda Levey, Lauren Mellstrom, Grace Underwood and Caroline Underwood.
Boys head coach: Constantine Matsakis
Girls head coach: Paul Ulrich
Boys to watch: Senior Sam Iseman; junior Bryce Kampert; sophomore Will Jones.
Girls to watch: Junior Jordan Maloney; sophomore Maria Grafov.
Boys head coach: Christopher Brewington
Girls head coach: Ivan Alvarado
Boys to watch: Senior Frederick Eiland II; junior David Salazar.
Girls to watch: Junior Caitlyn Wenholz; freshman Margaret Kato.
Boys head coach: Phil Rogers
Girls head coach: Robert Gessler
Boys to watch: Senior Noah Kim; sophomores Collin Carter, Logan Kim, Tibor Mester, Elliott Pochettino and Julian Vissering.
Girls to watch: Seniors Annabel Cortez and Meah Konstanzer; sophomores Lauren Johnson, Grace Ko, Anjali Paliyam and Thandi Romney.
Boys head coach: Paul Hugus
Girls head coach: John Isberg
Boys to watch: Senior Tommy Maloney, Chase McGeehan and Evan Ying; juniors Anish Nanjappa and Ryan Rose; sophomore Josh Galindo.
Girls to watch: Senior Raaya Khleif; junior Kennedy Clark; sophomore Faith Meininger.
Boys head coach: Jud Lincoln
Girls head coach: Dominique Lincoln
Boys to watch: Juniors Andy English and Will Tripp.
Girls to watch: N/A.
Boys head coach: Brian Bonn
Girls head coach: Greg Koffel
Boys to watch: Seniors Sky Cohn and Thomas Demer.
Girls to watch: Seniors Megan Mendez, Emily Shorb and Ruby Zhang; sophomores Erin Jacobs and Noor Singh.
Head coach: Kevin Dingle
Boys to watch: Senior Stephen Barr; sophomore Ben Nevius.
Girls to watch: Junior Addison Mueller.