Access to training information, better coaching and higher expectations are some of the reasons high school distance running is deeper, more exciting than ever.
"4A is going to be really competitive," said Mountain View head coach Brett Andrus. "It's deeper than any other division … deeper than it's probably been in a long time. … There is definitely a trend toward depth right now across the state and the nation."
Bonneville head coach Debbie Perry said some of the credit for raising expectations of local teams begins with American Fork and Davis. Last year both the Cavemen and Darts had nationally ranked teams and multiple runners who qualified for regional and national meets.
"Those two programs raised the bar," Perry said. She said American Fork coach Timo Mostert's desire to help his athletes qualify for regional and national meets changed the vision for the state's best runners. Davis High head coach Corbin Talley created similar expectations for the Darts.
More impressive than turning out individual champions was the fact both teams are able to battle for team titles — which requires depth — year after year.
"As (American Fork) started their journey, Davis was right behind them," she said. "They deserve the pioneering credit from the team perspective. They showed you can have four or five (runners) doing it, not just one or two."
The talent isn't just confined to the state's largest schools, as Park City's Ben Saarel is undefeated this season and continues to improve each race. He is unique because he is more focused on qualifying for regionals and nationals than he is on winning another state title.
"Strangely enough, for him, the state championship is the pre-season," said Park City coach Jeff Wyant. "He was 11th in regional and they take the top 10 to nationals. It stings a bit when you miss by one place."
Saarel worked hard and had an even better track season than last year's cross country season, in which he won the 3A state title. He's nationally ranked and is running heavier miles than usual in hopes of competing with the country's best this fall.
"I think he has a grudge to settle," said Wyant.
Park City hasn't won a team boys title since 2008, but the girls have won nine of the last 10, including last year's upset of nationally ranked and heavily favored Ogden.
Wyant isn't as confident the team has the same kind of depth now, but they're working hard with the goal of being in the mix.
Davis' girls won the 5A title last season and should contend again this season. Davis High's Shea Martinez is the two-time defending state champion in 5A, but she'll have plenty of competition from within her own team. Ellie Child was four seconds faster than Martinez at the Murray Invitational.
"I'm really excited about the girls team and how well the girls are running," said Talley.
American Fork's boys won the 5A championship with four of the top 10 finishers in the state meet. Bingham came in third last year and always has the potential to be among the top contenders.
In 4A, the boys race should be between defending state champions Mountain View and Bonneville (last year's runner-up) and Herriman. The Bruins are also the defending state champs on the girls side, although they've lost a couple of runners to concussion from soccer games. Orem, Timpview, Mountain Crest and Maple Mountain will be in the mix on the girls side.
In 3A, Ogden will be a factor in both the girls and boys races. Ogden returns all of last year's varsity squad.
In 2A, Parowan is the defending state champions, but San Juan, Richfield and Rowland Hall should vie for top honors. On the girls side, Rowland Hall promises to be a favorite again after winning the title last year. The Winged Lions had five girls in the top 11 spots in last year's state meet. San Juan and Enterprise have strong squads as well.
In 1A, Panguitch will look to defend the girls team title, while St. Joseph's and Wayne will try to take it from them. On the boys side, Monticello will look to defend its title. Bryce Valley and St. Joseph's promise to make it an interesting competition.
Runners to watch in 5A: Brayden Cromar, Davis; Alex Hedquist, Davis; Connor McMillan, American Fork; Zac Jacklin, American Fork; Brayden McLelland, American Fork; Austin Brewer, Bingham and Kramer Morton, Alta. On the girls side, Davis' Child and Martinez; Emily Orton, American Fork; Emily Rich, Bingham; Jackie Heaps, Lehi; Jessica Smith, Lone Peak and Kami Hartley, Herriman.
Runners to watch in 4A: This may be the most open of all classifications, with Jerrell Mock, Logan; Conner Mantz, Sky View; Jaydn Asay, Mountain View; Cade Perry, Bonneville; Adam Hendrickson, Box Elder; Chuk Mitchell, Herriman; Paxton Patey, Maple Mountain, Issac Faux, Maple Mountain and Rory Linkletter, Herriman.
On the girls side, Orem's Summer Harper will look to improve on her second-place finish last year. Also in the mix: Candace Greenwood, Orem; Ashley Runyan, Orem; Lucy Biles, Herriman; Sierra Malm, Salem Hills; Tori Parkinson, Mountain Crest; Miranda O'Very, Mountain Crest; Hannah Malone, Box Elder and Caroline Weiler, Skyline.
Runners to watch in 3A: Park City's Saarel is the man to beat. He's undefeated in every meet — against runners from any classification. In the Utah County Invitational, he edged Timpanogos' Jacob Heslington by less than a second to set up what should be an epic battle. Ogden's Mike Buckley is another contender. In the girls competition: Sarah Feeny, Ogden; Aimee Bryson, Cedar; Alisse Walker, Park City; Annie Orr, Park City and Jessica Sams, Ogden.