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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
American Fork varsity cross-country teammates Katie Cornell, left, Sophie Baird, Lexie Green, Maddie Bench and Sammy Hollingsworth celebrate their record-breaking win at the American Fork Grass Relays at American Fork High School on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014.

AMERICAN FORK — For the last five years the 5A cross-country title has been dominated by two teams. On the boys side, it’s been the American Fork Cavemen earning the title since 2009. This year is no exception as they’re ranked third in most national polls.

On the girls side, it’s been the Davis Darts that have dominated, even earning national honors, including this year’s No. 14 ranking in national polls.

This year will be more of the same as those two squads are still the teams to beat. Not only will they be contenders for state titles, but they should vie for regional and even national honors.

The question is how new talent will mesh with returning stars, and whether the pressure of defending past titles will help or hurt this year’s runners. For American Fork, the girls are trying to emulate a tradition their male counterparts have established.

“The girls have said, ‘We want to be more like the boys,’ ” said American Fork head coach Timo Mostert. “They’ve been willing to do work that they haven’t been willing to do in the past. … They have a goal that they want to place at regionals and go to nationals because the boys have done it five years in a row. They’re starting to understand that it takes a lot more hard work than they’ve ever put in before to get to that level.”

The girls team opened the season with a second-place finish to the team that’s dominated the 5A girls division for the last five years — Davis. The team followed that up by winning the grass relays that American Fork hosts in record-setting time.

“That’s a very good sign that their mental toughness and understanding of racing and pace is improving,” Mostert said. “But Davis is still No. 1 until we beat them. The girls will see Davis at the BYU Invitational and we’ll see how much today and next week helps us improve.” The Cavemen have a solid core of girls on that squad led by sophomore Sammy Hollingsworth, who had the fastest split in the relay and the best finish (seventh) of the Cavemen at Highland. Juniors Katie Cornell and Sophie Baird and seniors Lexi Green and Maddie Bench give the team depth and experience.

The boys team, which is ranked third in the nation, is in exactly the opposite position. Instead of chasing a rival, they’re trying to hold onto the state’s top spot, which they’ve owned decisively for the last five years. Three members of last year’s team that competed at the Nike Nationals return, and they’re led by Zac Jacklin, who earned the fastest split of the grass relays, Casey Clinger, McKay Johns and Jacob Chase.

Davis head coach Corbin Talley said his girls team knows it has to work hard to hold on to the title.

“We did beat (the American Fork) girls at Highland, but not by much,” Talley said. “Both teams are really strong. I think both teams are top 20 in the U.S. … We knew they’d be really tough this year as they returned six of their top seven, and they work really hard. We lost quite a few seniors.”

In fact, six of seven of the Darts’ state title team graduated. Luckily, their No. 1 runner, Aubrey Argyle, who finished second at state last year, is just a sophomore. She led the team in the Highland Invitational with a second-place finish — just five seconds behind the winner — Park City senior Alyssa Snyder. Miah Weaver, another sophomore, finished ninth, while Ally Geisler, also a sophomore, was 13th.

Talley said the tradition of winning actually helps incoming runners.

“Just the attitude of winning,” he said. “It just kind of spreads. There is an expectation. But we constantly remind them it’s not just going to happen. They buy into it and they know we’ve got to work for it.”

The Davis girls team had tremendous success last season with a one-point loss at regionals and a third-place finish at Nike Nationals. On the boys side, the Darts have a young team, but they’re working hard to compete not only with American Fork but also Lone Peak and Lehi, both of whom have promising boys teams. The Darts are led by senior Josh Ward, who finished fourth at the Highland Invitational. Juniors Logan Mackay and Colton Rimann are also off to promising starts.

Talley expects the real depth is in the smaller classifications.

“I don’t think 5A is as deep as it was last year,” Talley said. “Last year was probably the deepest year of 5A. But there were also a lot of seniors. American Fork is as strong as ever. They are such a tough team. … I think both AF and us could finish in the top 10 in the U.S.”

The last time that happened was in 2011 when the Davis boys finished third and American Fork was seventh at Nike Nationals.

“That’s the only time we’ve beaten American Fork (boys) in the last six years,” Talley said.

Herriman girls could be a factor as they’re led by nationally ranked senior Lucy Biles, who won the Timpanogos Invitational after taking fifth at Highland. The Bingham girls team is led by one of the state’s best runners in Marlee Mitchell, who finished third at Highland and had the fastest two-mile split at American Fork the following weekend.

The Jordan girls team has also started strong with a promising showing in the grass relays. They were led by Hannah Dutson, who had the ninth-fastest split of the race.

In 4A, Timpanogos is off to a promising start. The T-wolves are led by Brayden Allsop, Koy Moore, Bo Farrer and Joe Benson. Skyline, Sky View, Olympus, Orem and Provo all have talented runners this season.

Defending 4A individual champion, Conner Mantz, is back for his senior season and is already winning just about every race he runs. He won the season-opener at Highland by 24 seconds, with Copper Hills’ Christian Allen finishing second.

The Provo girls finished fifth in the grass relays, behind Olympus (4), Mountain Crest (3), Jordan (2) and American Fork (the winner). They’re led by Kate Hunter, while Orem is led by Alexis McArthur. Mountain Crest is led by Miranda O’Very, who finished eighth at the Highland Invitational.

In 3A, the defending state champion Desert Hills Thunder actually got stronger this season.

Head coach Logan Fielding said the Thunder traveled to the Wasatch Front last weekend to run on the state course and test themselves against the state’s biggest schools.

“I thought it would be kind of hard to top last year, but we’ve got a really solid group of boys coming back,” Fielding said.

That’s impressive considering the team had four of the top 11 finishers last fall. Joshua Thatcher and Kale Sharp are the top two guys, but a move-in from California and a football player who decided to try cross country (Spencer Ford) have made the team a dominating force in 3A.

The Desert Hills girls are led by Laynee Wells, who won the SUU High School Invitational on Aug. 23. Pine View is led by Nick Hill, who won the boys race at SUU.

Ogden, Stansbury, Park City and Cedar could all be in the mix come October. Alek Parsons leads a talented Tiger team, while the Park City team is led by four seniors.

In 2A, defending boys champion Rowland Hall and runner-up North Summit will again be contenders. The Braves are led by last year’s fourth-place finisher Jonathan Rothschild. Senior Eli Oftedal and juniors Sam Lemons and Sam Swooboda all return from last year’s title team.

The North Summit girls are the team to beat after winning last year’s team title behind now-junior Abbi Zwahlen. Sophomore Madeline Birk also returns for the Braves. The 2A individual champion, Anna Camp, Millard, returns for her junior season.

In 1A, the Panguitch girls should be the team to beat as Whittni Orton and Catania Holman both return to lead the team and should be contenders for the individual title. They finished one and two last season, with Orton, a junior, edging Holman, a senior, by 21 seconds.

On the boys side, Tyler Bird leads last year’s 1A state champion team — Monticello. Senior Kyler LaRose also returns to help the Buckaroos.

Panguitch boys should battle the Buckaroos as junior Conor Anderson and junior Ian Anderson and sophomore Jonah Schoppe all return from last year’s second-place team.

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