When it comes to their runners, Hilary and Jimmy Groves form quite the bond with those who compete in the sport of cross country at Ripley High School.

So, no formal meet-and-greet was needed when their crew arrived for preseason practices this month.

Both the girls and boys teams have several familiar names from a year ago to go along with a talented group of freshmen.

One runner who certainly needs no introduction is Tori Starcher.

The talented junior turned in quite the season as a sophomore – which was, in fact, her first at the varsity level. An injury wiped out her entire freshman year.

Starcher raced to an undefeated season and capped it off with the individual Class AAA championship at the West Virginia High School State Meet in Ona on the Cabell Midland High campus last October. On a muddy course, Starcher became the first female state cross country champ in school history (Brett Hunt owns a boys state title) by turning in a time of 17:34.98. Running second was University’s TaShala Turner who ran the course in a time of 17:54.98.

Starcher was named the state’s Gatorade Cross Country Female Athlete of the Year for cross country following the season. In the spring, she picked up the same honor for girls track and field. Starcher won three individual events at the State Meet and anchored a winning relay team as Ripley won its first state championship in the sport.

With Starcher leading the way, the Lady Vikings will look to make a run at a state cross country title this season. Ripley placed seventh out of 12 teams in last year’s Class AAA field. The Lady Vikings finished with a team total of 181 points.

“She’s a state champion and she is looking as good as always,” said Jimmy Groves of Starcher.

Her training over the summer included competing in the prestigious New Balance National Outdoor event. She placed sixth nationally in the 800 meters with a time of 2:07.42. The time is a state record.

Ripley’s lone senior is Allison Knox, who was a member of last year’s State Meet team. “She is a key component to this this year,” Groves said. “She’s a dependable runner.”

Junior Grace Zuniga is another State Meet runner who is back. “She has improved a lot over the summer,” Groves said.

Kaylyn Parrish is another junior runner who at the moment is battling an injury.

Sophomore Jadyn Casto returns after finishing 28th at last year’s State Meet. “She’s a key part of the team. We will need her to run well this season.”

Aubrey Stephens is another sophomore with lots of potential. “She’s worked hard all summer. I expect her to be a Top 5 runner. She has come a long way since sixth grade,” Groves said.

Rounding out the sophomore class is Lauren Roush, who is making her debut on the Lady Viking roster. “She looks strong. She’s a basketball player looking to stay in shape. We are happy to get her out,” Groves said.

The freshmen class features Tori Fisher, who is coming off an outstanding middle school career. “She has a lot of potential. She can really help us,” Groves said.

Haleigh McCune is a ninth grade runner Groves said will “challenge for the No. 2 and No. 3 (running) spots.”

Trista Scarberry is the third member of the freshmen class who makes the move to the varsity level.

The Viking boys team starts with senior Bradley Yost, one of two seniors. “He has great potential. He’s a strong leader. We need to keep him healthy,” Groves said.

Another senior, Easton Perry, has returned to the program after a year off. “He’s a great kid,” Groves said of Perry, who recently was honored with a full academic scholarship to West Virginia Wesleyan.

Three juniors are on the Viking roster. “Chase Casto has been with us since sixth grade. He’s a strong leadere. Garrison Phillips is the rock of our team. He keeps everyone motivated. Gabe Zuniga gives us great effort.”

The sophomore class has but one runner in Trey Starcher. “He is the captain of our team,” Grove said.

Some good looking freshmen have moved up to the varsity ranks. “Levi Jones has a big upside. Chase Pepper is a fantastic runner. He runs every day. Cole Neal has a knee injury. He came in in pretty decent shape. He’s worked hard.”

Ripley’s schedule will include trips to Pickerington, Ohio (outside of Columbus) and Charlotte, North Carolina for meets.

The program’s annual home meet – the Covered Bridge Invitational – will take place this year on September 22 at Cedar Lakes.