A youth movement for the Coconino Panthers cross country program is lacing up for the 2019 season that's now two races in for the team.
With just a handful of seniors on the program's complete roster of 40-plus athletes, a few upstart runners are logging miles and developing racing chemistry early for a Panthers squad that lost some key pieces to graduation.
“I am really encouraged by my freshmen," Panthers head coach Shannon Taylor said Saturday during the annual Peaks Invitational at Buffalo Park, where her Division III girls squad won the Ascent division race with a low score of 41 points.
After leading the Panthers girls at Tuesday's Hopi invite with a third-place finish in 22:24.7, freshman Wheaten Smith was the second Coconino runner to cross the Peaks finish line for a sixth-place result overall in 22:35.8.
Kaelynn Ashley, a Panthers senior with state meet experience, finished the 5,000-meter Peaks course in fifth place overall with a time of 22:21.3. Taylor said runners such as Ashley will be looked upon to take on a leadership role for the squad.
There's plenty of talent to build up.
Smith is the younger sister of Woodlyn Smith, who helped the team take fourth place at the D-III state meet in 2018 and second in 2017. She's joined by fellow freshmen Zoe Sather, who clocked a 24:18.4 Saturday for 20th place, and Zofia Sawasky, who placed 22nd in 24:24.6, in building back up the program.
A total of four seniors graduated from the girls squad last year, with another of its faster runners not racing for the team in Hope Saxton.
"They run so well together and they have the ability to take the next step to high school in their running," Taylor said of her freshmen.
Meanwhile, juniors Macy Smith and Erin Kitterman, and sophomore Claire Walker finished in the top 25 of Saturday's 5000m to help Coconino's girls beat out Page's 49 points. Macy Smith came in 14th overall, with Walker taking 19th and Kitterman placing 21st.
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“Just to see the progress from June, July and to now, we are all in this together," Taylor said of this year's boys and girls groups. "There is no one standout athlete, it’s everyone pulling each other along, pack running and encouraging each other.”
The team started working out together and spending time developing chemistry in June. With three on the boys side lost to graduation, Taylor wanted the young athletes to work on teamwork.
Taylor also likes sending her runners to Hopi due to the fact that it allows them to get used to racing again -- or for the first time.
“I like the course at Hopi," Taylor said, "and we have the competition of D-IV and D-III athletes and teams, so we also get a chance to figure out who’s on varsity.”
And get some jitters out.
The boys squad is full of talent that will look to make big strides as the season unfolds. So far this year, the boys side has placed eighth at the Hopi meet and 10th at Peaks, both times being led by sophomores who got state meet experience last season.
Mitchell Jacobson took 34th at the Hopi meet and finished 43rd at Peaks for the Panthers, while Adin Scott went 38th and 19th. Scott registered a time of 19:47.5 on Saturday as the top finisher for his team.
“With all the competition out here, they already have a race under their belts, so they are a little more confident in themselves," Taylor said.
The Panthers are schedule to compete next at the Canyon de Chelly invite on Sept. 14.