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European edition, Thursday, September 13, 2007

When the high school cross country season opens Saturday, Europe’s runners might think it’s 2004 all over again.

Why 2004? Because that was the last year the sport’s Big Schools individual titles weren’t the foregone property of two-time winners Greg Billington of Lakenheath and Colleen Smith of Kaiserslautern.

And it’s not just in the Big Schools field that the drama’s back. Two-time Small Schools girls champ Erika Anderson of Sigonella and Small Schools boys champ Nathan Malinski of Brussels have departed, too.

Ramstein’s Kevin Edwards, No. 10 last year, should benefit from all the elbow room freed up by the departure of perennial stalwarts such as Billington — who finished nearly a minute ahead of the runner-up in the 2006 European championships — plus Nicholas Rogers of Patch and Tim Spicer of Mannheim. For the girls, Maggie Redmond of Patch, second but still 43 seconds behind Smith last year, stands to benefit most from the departure of the K-town star, who’ll run in the United States during her junior and senior years.

“Maggie is back and motivated,” Patch coach Larry Bahn wrote in an e-mail. “Hopefully, she will stay healthy throughout the season and do well.”

The openings for new champions carry over into team titles. Big Schools team titles, won the past seven years by Ramstein’s boys and the last two years by Kaiserslautern’s girls, appear competitive again.

According to Ramstein coach Dennis Edwards, his boys team isn’t the shoo-in it’s been in the past.

“Our boys should be good,” he wrote, “but we won’t run away from anybody this year. ... Over the past four years we have graduated six athletes who are now competing in NCAA Division I sports (most recently 2006 runner-up Kyle Southard to the Air Force Academy and No. 9 Mike Parsons to South Florida). It is hard to continue to replace that quality of athlete.”

Led by Smith and the Hrushka sisters, Anna and Joy, Kaiserslautern won the past two girls Big Schools team titles, but the Lady Raiders are starting over this season without them and longtime coach Marty Kollar, who retired.

If new Kaiserslautern coach Kevin Thompson can’t find anyone to fill the shoes of the trio which accounted for two firsts, a second, a third and a fourth in 2005 and ’06, it could be a chance for Ramstein, second in ’06, to break through.

“We have a good group … returning (led by Stephanie Polzer), as well as a good group of newcomers,” Edwards wrote of his Lady Royals.

The new chase begins Saturday on a somber note brought about by the death last week of Bitburg coach David Turner, 48. Turner died of a suspected heart attack during practice.

Meets are scheduled for Wiesbaden, Lakenheath, Ramstein and Hohenfels. The seven-week season concludes Oct. 27 at Tompkins Barracks in the Heidelberg suburb of Schwetzingen.

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