BY DENNIS CHASE
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Lisa Taylor starts her 20th season as coach of Traverse City Central girls cross country with a team ranked 20th nationally in a pre-season poll by XC Nation.
Practice officially starts in 10 days.
Central is one of five Michigan teams ranked in the top 25. Saline checks in at No. 2, Birmingham Seaholm at No. 9, Northville at No. 21 and Grosse Pointe South at No. 24.
"Michigan is recognized nationally as a powerhouse state," Taylor said. "Last year's end of season rankings, and this year's pre-season rankings are good indicators of the quality of the teams in this state."
The Trojans finished fourth last November in the Division 1 state finals behind Seaholm, Grosse Pointe South and Saline. Seaholm ended No. 1 in the national rankings, South No. 3 and Saline No. 5.
Saline returns its top six runners. So does Traverse City, which is why optimism is running high.
"The girls are excited and proud (of the ranking)," Taylor said. "But they know rankings don't always pan out for all teams. When they heard it, they had an attitude of 'now it's really time to work for that presence.'"
So the Trojans are out to prove the ranking is justified.
"It's motivating our team to push harder," junior Ashley Ko said.
Need evidence? The Trojans cranked up the intensity of their summer training program, running higher mileage and at a faster base training pace. The summer program has also included weight training two nights a week.
"We've been really dedicated to summer training," senior co-captain Joy Reist said. "It's been more intense (than past years). We're pumped. We're excited to see what happens."
The Trojans first meet will be the Benzie Central Invitational on Aug. 24.
"We want to come out of the gate hard," Taylor said. "When you go in ranked, you don't want to slip into oblivion with a bad first performance."
Taylor has plenty of experience to draw on this season with a group led by seniors Reist, Molly Peregrine and Katie Moses and juniors Ko, Graceanne Tarsa, Jordan Mattarella, Kalina Pfannenstiel and Ellie Taylor.
Peregrine was injured most of last season, but returned late and led the Trojans at the state meet. Moses suffered a stress fracture in the last meet before the regional, but came back with a strong track season.
Taylor is excited about Central's schedule, which includes the Spartan Invitational on Sept. 13, the Portage Invitational on Oct. 5 and the Cougar Falcon Invitational the week before the regional.
"It (schedule) give us the competition we'll need, and also the rest we'll need," she said.
The Cougar Falcon Invitational is new to the lineup this season. It will include teams — like Rockford and Grand Haven — that Central will see in the regional.
That regional, by the way, will be hosted by Traverse City at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa.
Statewide, Taylor said Saline will be the team to beat.
"Saline had five runners in the 3200 final at the D-1 state (track meet)," Taylor said. "They averaged 11:10 for all five runners. We averaged about 11:40 for our returning top five."
That fact was not lost on the Trojans.
"That was a wake-up call," Reist said.
"They're aware of their competition," Taylor added. "Going in, they're very educated about the caliber of teams they're competing against. They know it's not going to be easy."