RICHLAND -- The sport of running will never rival the likes of football for attention.
Tonight's football game between Kennewick and Kamiakin high schools figures to fill up the 6,800-seat Lampson Stadium.
The Richland Invite -- the area's biggest regular-season cross country meet -- likely will draw several hundred spectators, mostly family and friends. And even the all-classes state event at Sun Willows Golf Course in Pasco can't compete with a regular-season showdown between city rivals.
But it is hard to dispute one simple fact: The quality of athletes running cross country in the Tri-Cities and Mid-Columbia is higher than in just about any other sport going.
There is elite individual talent -- Kamiakin senior Anthony Armstrong is one of the best high school distance runners in the nation.
There are elite teams -- the Kamiakin girls and boys figure to challenge for state titles, and the Hermiston boys look like a good bet to repeat as Oregon 5A state champs.
And there is plenty of depth, with no fewer than 45 returning state veterans.
It all adds up to what should be an outstanding cross country season.
Walla Walla has the market cornered on proven Mid-Columbia talent, with senior J.P. Wolpert (13th at state) and junior Rachel Nelson (16th) the area's only returning state competitors.
With the likes of Wa-Hi's Aaron Nelson (Washington) and Richland's Katie Mahoney (Eastern Washington) and Maggie Jones (Gonzaga) off to run at college, there is plenty of room at the top for some new talent.
The Bombers might have the area's top newcomer in freshman Lindsey Bradley, who already has finished ahead of Nelson and Mayra Chavez (11th at state) of defending state champ Eisenhower in a league meet.
On the boys side, Richland junior Ryan Francis sliced a minute off his time at the Meadlander from last season. A minute faster at regionals from last year, and Francis will be running at state.
Moses Lake senior Hayden Wise also is off to a strong start, looking more like a cross country runner and less like a wrestler staying in shape for winter.
Everyone will be chasing after Eisenhower, which doubled up on state titles last season. The Cadets boys were the first non-Spokane team to win the state title since they won the title in 1987.
Individually, Wenatchee seniors Jacob Smith and Nicholas Boersma on the boys side and Davis senior Kaitlin Kaluzny on the girls will be among the top performers.
The Kamiakin boys are ranked nationally and figure to give some serious competition to five-time defending state champ North Central, whose average margin of victory over the last four years is 60 points.
Armstrong is ranked fifth in the nation by ESPNRise, but the Braves go far deeper with all seven of their runners returning from last year's fifth-place team, one spot out of a trophy finish at state. Senior Austin Richards is a three-year veteran, and sophomore Keegan McCormick is beginning to establish himself as a solid No. 2.
And, with some 40 runners out for the team, competition is heated for those top seven spots, coach Matt Rexus said.
"This year, it would be very disappointing not to be in the top four," Rexus said. "We're shooting for higher."
As are the Braves girls, whose fourth-place finish netted the area's first state 3A or 4A state trophy since Kamiakin's girls finished third in 2003. Five of their seven state runners are back, led by senior Stephanie Rexus and junior Michelle Fletcher.
Kamiakin isn't likely to get much of a challenge team-wise until regionals, and its top runners on both sides likely will be the top dogs as well.
Hanford, which graduated three-time Herald girls runner of the year Erin Hegarty (Baylor University), returns senior Erin Braich, who was a surprise state qualifier for the boys 3A race after finishing 13th at the district meet last year. Also, junior Ben Hoffner has been running well for the Falcons.
Kennewick junior Joseph Schuldheisz has state potential after finishing fourth at the district meet last year, and Pasco senior Sergey Gorbatyuk cut more than 1 1/2 minutes off his time at the Moses Lake Invite from last year.
Most of the state berths figure to be taken up by runners from out of the area. However, Prosser junior Kolby Childers is a returning state competitor and has paced well with big-school girls, as has teammate Bradley Buttars on the boys side.
Both the Connell and Royal boys return the bulk of state-qualifying teams. Royal sophomore Marcos Quiroz and Kiona-Benton senior Adrian Castellanos could be primed for a solid individual season as well.
Tri-Cities Prep won the boys state title last year without a single senior on the squad. The Jaguars already are off to a strong start in their repeat bid, led by seniors Nick Lumetta and Nick Fong. Sophomore Victoria Nunez gives the school a state threat on the girls side as well.
Waitsburg-Prescott junior Seth Deal will contend for a state title this season after placing fourth last year. However, the Cardinals are likely to miss out on state for the first time in four seasons, with only three runners on the team.
The Hermiston boys return five of their seven runners from last year's 5A state title winners, including senior Javier Velasco (third at state) and junior Eduardo Juarez (senior).
The Bulldogs girls also qualified for state last year and return talented sophomore Katie Markwick (fourth as a freshman). Junior Maggie Coleman, who only ran twice last season, could be in for a big year.
Returning state qualifiers
13, JP Wolpert, sr., Walla Walla.
16, Rachel Nelson, jr., Walla Walla.
Kamiakin team fifth-place (3, Anthony Armstrong, sr.; 24, Austin Richards, sr.; 46, Christian Rodriguez, jr.; 55, Phil Snyder, sr.; 79, Keegan McCormick, so.; 79, Taylor Kraal, sr.; 120, Austin Oser, jr.); 37, Erin Braich, sr., Hanford.
Kamiakin team fourth (7, Michelle Fletcher, jr.; 8, Stephanie Rexus, sr.; 50, Sydney Blaser, sr.; 85, Brittany Brooks, so.; 125, Samantha Meadows, sr.); 19, Rachel Dahl, sr., Southridge.
81, Kolby Childers, jr., Prosser.
Connell team 15th (90, Josh DeVleming, jr.; 116, Francisco Corona, fr.; 117, Alfredo Leon, soph.; 123, Robert Orozco, fr.); Royal team 11th (56; Marcos Quiroz, so.; 87, Juan Jimenez, jr., 105, Trevor Mianecki, jr.; 110, Jesus Peraza, jr.); 58, Adrian Castellanos, sr., Kiona-Benton.
93, Haleigh Noyes, so., Connell; 104, Ana Delos Santos, sr., Royal; 74, Thalia Quintero, jr., Wahluke; 84, Linda Achelpohl, jr., Wahluke.
Returing state competitors: Tri-Cities Prep team champion (7, Nick Lumetta, sr.; 10, Nick Tudor, jr.; 21, Skyler Larson, so.; 23, Nick Fong, sr.; 30, John Hylden, jr.; 52, Sam Leon, jr.; 56, Adam Noorani, sr.); Waitsburg-Prescott team seventh (4, Seth Deal, jr.; 95, EJ Meserve, so.); 109, Brandon Berk, fr., Bickleton.
Hermiston team 5A champion (3, Javier Velasco, sr.; 10, Eduardo Juarez, jr.; 51, Jose Macias, so.; 60, Kain Garcia, sr.; 76, Alejandro Cisneros, so.).
Hermiston team 11th 5A (4, Katie Markwick, so.; 44, Kelli Niederwerfer, so.; 73, Gaby Villegas, sr.; 75, Jordyn Rohrman, sr.; 83, Maryanna Jimenez, so.; 90, Abby Johnston, so.).