After winning consecutive state championships, the Lady Raiders were favored to win a third after running well throughout the season, but they had to settle for a second-place finish to Brookwood in Carrollton.
Walton and Brookwood were evenly matched through the top four runners, and the meet came down to the fifth runners of both teams. In all, five of the Lady Broncos’ runners placed in the top 25, and though the Lady Raiders had four finish in the top 20, their fifth runner didn’t make the top 50.
Walton coach Travis Gower also said he was missing one runner to an illness.
Since then, Walton has regrouped, and it will attempt to win its third state title in four years.
Even though the Lady Raiders won’t have Erin Ratcliffe and Alexa Womack, who are now running at Georgia Tech and Clemson, respectively, they return five runners who bring significant experience to the varsity level.
“We have some real good depth and a lot of experience from within the program,” Gower said. “We lost key runners, but we have a lot of girls that have run varsity meets the past few years and on the high-level JV. These girls have been with the program, but have never been the leaders.
“They’re ready. They just have to step up and do it.”
Junior Avery Bussjager is looking to fill that leadership role.
After finishing ninth in the state last season, she’s the most experienced runner returning this fall after coming off a solid track season in which she finished seventh in the state in both the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs.
Gower said Bussjager will be one of the highest-contested runners in state.
Junior Christie Sanders is expected to be back to full strength after having to deal with health-related issues last season. She also has experience running under pressure, as the fifth runner on Walton’s 2011 state championship team.
Senior Emily Bridges is the only runner who was part of Walton’s two championship teams, and she’s looking to go out on a high note. Senior Gretchen West is only in her second year of running and has already made strides, and junior Katie Sanders — Christie’s sister — will add depth.
“We had a group of girls who could run together (last year), but we’ll see how it works out,” Gower said. “We hope to get people feeding off of each other as much as possible. It seems to help carry other runners, and allows other runners not as strong to hang in there with the stronger ones.”
Walton was the lone team to place in the top 10 of the Class AAAAAA standings last year. Meanwhile, Harrison, North Cobb and Marietta are looking to improve their status after respective finishes of 11th, 14th and 15th.
Harrison is returning sophomore Emily Duvaris and senior Anna Kansol to help the Lady Hoyas improve their status and win a sixth straight region title. North Cobb will benefit by returning seniors Tyra Holloway and Jamie Colon, and Marietta didn’t lose any key runners from last year’s team.