|Contributed Photo. Highlands senior Ethan Shuley became the first-ever individual state champion cross country champion in school history in last year's Class AA boys race. He outran the rest of the pack by 21 seconds in 15 minutes, 58.14 seconds.|
Last year, the Highlands Ladybirds cross country team won its third consecutive Class AA state championship while the Bluebirds finished third. This marked the third time in school history that the Ladybirds have won five in a row. The other two times came between 1978 and 1980 and 2002 to 2004. They have the second-most championships in Kentucky history behind St. Henry's 17.
But last year's crown did not come easy. The Christian Academy of Louisville Lady Centurions placed their top four runners slightly ahead of Highlands' top four. But Highlands placed all seven runners in the top 52, while the fifth runner for CAL finished 75th leaving Highlands with 107 points and second-place CAL with 140. The top five runners on each team make up the scoring.
"Even though the field is not strong, they have to come out and do the work," said Brian Alessandro, Highlands Head Coach. "The girls are highly motivated. Depth is a great problem to have. You almost wish you could take two teams to state."
Highlands returns all seven runners from that team. They are seniors Molly Mearns, Lauren Ossege, juniors Chloe Gastright, Sydney Ossege, sophomores Carson Hunter, Brianna Collins and eighth grader Adriana Muntaner. Sydney Ossege said everyone takes the responsibility to speak up when a teammates is slacking off. Gastright led Highlands placing 10th in 19 minutes, 46.76 seconds last year.
"We just try to push each other," Sydney Ossege said. "We all know how well we can do because we've been running together as a group for a while. We know if we go out and run our best, we can do anything we want to do with the depth of the team."
The Bluebirds return their top five scorers from last year. Senior Ethan Shuley became the first individual state champion in school history on either side for Highlands winning the Class AA boys title in 15:58. Seniors Matt Gray, Geoff Mearns, Will Backscheider and Jackson Paul also return as the other four scorers.
"These guys are way better than last year," Alessandro said. "Each year, these guys progress."
Highlands finished last year with 110 points. North Oldham won the AA title with 49 points and Webster County took second with 96. Highlands knows this could be its last shot at its first state championship since 1985.
"North Oldham is always a tough team," Gray said. "We just have to stick with them. We have to figure out what hasn't gone right the past few years. It's a matter of being prepared for state. They've always been able to get to that next level. We need to be right there and hope it goes right that day."
To prepare for the stretch run, Highlands is going to more meets in Ohio this year. Meets at Greater Catholic South teams Cincinnati Moeller and St. Xavier are on the schedule. The one at Moeller opens the season around 6 p.m. on Aug. 28.