That is the Highlands Bluebirds girls squad. Highlands has won five Class AA state crowns in the past six years and looks like the early favorite to bring the gold back to Fort Thomas once again. Highlands owns 11 state championships in school history ranking only second behind St. Henry's 19 in Kentucky High School Athletic Association history.
Highlands won the championship at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington with 77 points placing all seven runners in the top 58 and its five scorers in the top 30. Ashland Blazer came in second with 91 points. Highlands Head Coach Brian Alessandro said Ashland and Bourbon County will be two of the main challengers.
The Highlands boys finished fourth with 228 points behind Lexington Catholic (39), Warren East (134) and Boyle County (153). But the Highlands boys return five of their top seven runners hoping to improve on that finish.
"We're going to keep doing what we've been doing," Alessandro said. "We have a system in place. As long as the kids buy into it, we're going to keep it going."
Highlands returns its top three placers off that team and four total in addition to returning some key runners to make another run at the state championship. Sophomore Maggie Schroeder made a huge bid to become the first girls individual state champion in school history running the state meet in 19 minutes, 17.78 seconds. Schroeder finished just under two second behind the state champion in Rockcastle County's Victoria Dotson, who won it in 19:15.80.
The other three returning runners are junior Maria Broering (9th at state meet in 19:53.07), junior Alissa Campbell (26th in 20:44.06) and eighth grader Ruby Smith (67th in 21:58.49). Highlands graduated Brianna Collins, Karsen Hunter and Savannah Brady from its top seven.
Highlands hopes to receive a huge boost from the return of sophomore Greta Noble. She did not run in the state meet last year because of a soccer injury. Eighth grader Alyssa Harris, who qualified for state in the mile in track and field in the spring, is also hoping for a big year.
"Even the middle school kids will hang out with the older kids," Alessandro said. "They're good mentors. Reloading is hard to do. The boys are starting to get there, but with the girls, it seems like a consistent pattern, which is nice."
Noble, Broering and Harris all run cross country and play soccer. Broering said the two sports help stay in shape for the other, but they have their different challenges which can enhance the mind.
"Soccer is a much more a quick thinking kind of sport," Broering said. "You always have to be on your toes ready to make quick decisions. Whereas, I feel like cross country really tests how strong your will power is because there are times where you're like, 'It's hot. I'm tired. I could just stop right now.' But you can't and you know that you have to finish."
Sophomore Will Griffith leads the Highlands boys. He finished 18th in 17:26.82 last year. Eighth grader Sam Hopper also returns after finishing 26th in the state meet last year in 17:40.24. Hopper finished in the top five in the country for a 5K (five kilometers equaling 3.107 miles) race for his age group.
But to improve on last year's finish, Alessandro said other runners are going to have to close the gap with those two. Lexington Catholic's scorers ran the race in 17:32.27 or faster last year. Three of them were seniors.
"With the boys, it's a little more unpredictable with how they'll run because they mature a little bit differently," Alessandro said. "You could be really bad in middle school and step up and run really well as a freshman in high school."
Highlands graduated Blake Shuley and Caleb Chambers from last year's top seven. One senior returning from last year is Donovan Staab (91st in 18:50.74).
"Going into senior year, I have had a lot of experience on the team, understanding the effort it will take to make a successful year," Staab said. "In order to strive for a higher placement at state as a team, we will need to take advantage of the pre-season workouts and really push each other to work harder and harder each day. I really believe that all of our hard work will pay off in the end."
The other two state meet runners from last year are junior Grant Uhlenbrock (125th in 19:19.75) and senior Jake Ryan (129th in 19:21.93). Highlands also hopes to receive a boost from freshman Will White.
The Highlands boys own three Class AA state championships in school history. They came in 1979, 1983 and 1985.
The first meet is Friday, Aug. 24 in the Archbishop Moeller (Ohio) "Primetime" Cross Country Invitational at Christ's Church in Mason (Ohio). The girls race in the Blue 5K at 8:45 p.m. and the Highlands boys run at 9:15 p.m.