BENZONIA — Nearly 600 varsity and JV runners will descend Saturday on Benzie Central for the Pete Moss Invitational, the season opener for several area cross country teams.
Races start at 8:45 a.m.
The field will include three area state track champions — Holly Bullough of St. Francis, Amber Way of Charlevoix and Chase Barnett of Mason County Central.
It will also include two nationally-ranked teams — the Traverse City Central girls and Benzie Central boys. Central is ranked 20th among large schools by XC Nation. Benzie is ranked 19th among small schools.
The Benzie boys — and girls — finished fourth in the Division III state cross country finals last November. Both squads, which return a number of key performers, will compete in the large school division Saturday, going head-to-head with the Trojans.
"I'm glad we get a chance to race them," Benzie coach Asa Kelly said. "We don't see them much. I think it will be a good test for our kids.
"I think our boys can give them a decent run, but Central has two boys (Anthony Berry and Kyle Dotterrer) up front who are really strong. Central's boys, I think, will be a top five team by the end of the year. They're stacked.
"Central's girls, the only thing they have going against them, is that D-1 is loaded with Saline and (Birmingham) Seaholm. Most years Central would have enough to win it, but it's going to take a heck of a race to beat those schools."
As for Benzie, Kelly returns five of his top seven boys, including three seniors — Ismael Halaweh, Andrew Hayden and Max Gaft — who have competed in the state meet three years in a row. They'll be joined by junior Kyle Bailey, sophomores Jake Williams and Noah Robotham and freshman Brayden Huddleston. Huddleston, one of nine freshmen on the team, ran fourth in a recent scrimmage with Grand Rapids South Christian.
Kelly said he wants to avoid overemphasizing the state finals during the season and instead focus on developing the team.
"I think we had a lot of talent last year, but it's just a matter of coming together," he said. "I've been pushing team, team, team. Everything is about team. We've talked about having (team) goals bigger than personal goals."
The girls team should be just as solid, returning Alyssa Bennett, Bryce Cutler, Makayla Huddleston, Rachael Peabody, Sarah Jones and Abbey Clasen from last season's top seven. Sophomore Stephanie Schaub joins the lineup.