By Jeff Nations
WOODSTOCK -- Tony Whetzel better get in line early if he wants his pick of seats on Central's bus to the Group A state cross country championship on Saturday.
The Falcons have 23 runners headed to the course at Great Meadow in The Plains, making the bus somewhat crowded for the trip -- and that's perfect, as far as Whetzel and his teammates are concerned.
"It will be a full bus," Whetzel said. "It's good that we're bringing both teams. We've done that two years in a row now. I guess our coaches know what they're doing."
It is the second straight year Central has qualified both its boys and girls squads for the state competition. The Falcons took third in last week's Region B boys meet, and fourth in the girls meet to earn return trips. Central's boys have now qualified four straight years, and the girls twice.
Central sophomore Elsa Garcia, who ran for the girls last year at states, said having the whole program along for the trip benefits both teams.
"It always makes it exciting to have all of your teammates with you, supporting you throughout the whole thing," Garcia said.
That camaraderie has helped Central all season, through the grind of daily practice and the build-up of competition culminating with Saturday's state meet.
"I think the guys push us in a lot of ways, and that's helped us go as far as we have," Central senior Chelsea Pizzuto said. "Last year states was something new to us because we hadn't gone in so long. We went last year and we were really excited. This year, we actually trained for it. Last year was more of a surprise, I guess you could say."
Central's girls finished 10th at last year's state competition, but the team looks to make a serious jump this year. Falcons coach Melissa Wright is hoping her squad might even earn a spot on the medal stand, if everything falls into place.
"I think our girls right now are probably top four in the state," Wright said. "I think if we have a great day we'll have an opportunity to place."
Junior Katie Ritenour and freshman Lexi Keller have led the pack for Central this year, and Wright thinks both have a shot at all-state recognition. Wright isn't counting out Garcia or junior Heather Landes, either. Keller was fifth and Ritenour sixth at last week's Region B meet.
"I think we've got a lot of talent on our team," Ritenour said. "Everybody works hard, and we have a deep connection. We're all good friends, we get along really well, and I think that helps the team out."
Keeping that pack close is always the key, and Pizzuto thinks the Falcons are ready to perform at their best on Saturday.
"We're good for our top seven," Pizzuto said. "I think we're strong, confident -- I think we can pull out a good one on Saturday."
Central's boys are also looking to move up after placing seventh in last year's state competition. Whetzel and senior Jason Ruckman have taken leading roles on this year's team, which lost last year's Group A state runner-up Brandon Poff to graduation.
Several of the Falcons will be making their first state appearance, leaving veterans like Whetzel and Ruckman to fill in the newcomers on what to expect from the Great Meadow course.
"There's one big hill," Ruckman said. "The rest of it's pretty flat. And the finish is really long, so you don't want to go hard the whole time. You don't want to get suckered into the whole finishing area -- you want to take it slow at first, then go hard."
Wright thinks the boys rank among the state's best this year.
"Looking at our boys, I definitely think there are six teams that are viable to be in the top six," Wright said. "Any of those six teams could be on the medal stand podium on Saturday. I think with our boys, depth is our strength. They have the will to win and they work hard to make that happen."
Instead of looking for a personal best, Whetzel is focused on helping Central to its best team finish possible. That means keeping that pack of Falcons runners tight and pushing each other on the course.
"Everybody on the team helps out, even the girls team helps us," Whetzel said. "Everybody on the team helps each other. There's no one person that contributes the most. It's a team effort."
It's a common refrain -- team -- but the Falcons have proven their strength in numbers as a combined group the last two years.
"I know a lot of people look at our sport and say, 'Oh, it's an individual sport,'" Wright said. "But I think for those of at Central, we approach it as a team and our team is our strength, definitely, on both sides."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>