Craig Zamiara has been building something special at Lake Norman Charter.
In just two seasons as members of the N.C. High School Athletic Association, the Knights' cross country team has emerged as an annual contender for the 1A state title on both the boys' and girls' courses.
In their first season as a 1A public team in 2009, both Lake Norman Charter teams finished sixth at the state meet. Then, last year, the Knights girls finished just two points short of a state championship while the boys finished third at the state meet.
That success coupled with a talented and experienced roster for both squads has Zamiara thinking even bigger in 2011.
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"We've talked about from the very beginning of our training this year that we expect to be one of the best teams in the state," he said. "Our expectations are very high. We want to win our conference, the regional and state championship. We know it is not going to be easy."
The road to contending for a state title will start in the Southern Piedmont Conference, where the Knights join East Lincoln, Lincolnton and North Lincoln and others in a conference with some of the best 1A and 2A teams in the state.
Zamiara welcomes the chance to be a part of a league.
"I'm really excited about joining a conference and getting all the rivalries going in the league," he said. "I think it is only going to make us stronger."
The Lake Norman Charter girls' team has a lot of reasons to think they can be better than their state runner-up finish last year, with four of their top five runners back.
Junior Sarah Hardin, who finished fourth at the state meet, is the top returning runner from last year's 1A field and will be among the favorites to win the individual state title.
Hardin will have a lot of help on her team as junior Stephanie Zaino, who finished ninth at 1A state meet in 2010, is also returning. Sophomore Lauren Swift and junior Bridgette Siemon, who were among five Knights who finished in the top 40 at state in 2010, are also back in the mix with seniors Sarah Jones and Casey Knosby.
The Knight girls' team starts as one of the favorites to contend again for a state title with Hendersonville, the defending champion, and Graystone Day School.
"We were so close last year and I think that is a huge motivation for this team," said Zamiara.
The Knights' boys have similar talent returning, but did experience their first loss of a senior class with standouts Jordan Phillips and Erik Foran - who were both top 10 finishers at states - graduating.
Senior Chris Hack, who finished 13th at the cross-country championships last year, is back to lead an experienced team after he won the 800-meter 1A state championship in the outdoor track season.
Hack won't be alone as seniors Nathan Farber, Bryant Hooker, Jared Shields and Michael Westbay also return. Hack's younger brother, Steve Hack, and freshman Sean Powers should also make immediate impacts as underclassmen.
The Lake Norman Charter boys are a deep team that finished third at state and runner-up at the 1A Midwest Regionals and were still disappointed by their finish, according to Zamiara.
"We've come a long way from 'the little charter school that couldn't compete,' " he said. "Now, people all around know who we are and they know we are a contender."
Lake Norman Charter isn't the only team that will have a chance to win its conference and make noise in the postseason.
Lake Norman High's teams have several runners who will compete for an I-Meck title and beyond with senior Michael Rupinski leading the boys' side and Taylor Sweet and Kelsie Rubino showing the way on the girls' side. The Wildcat girls, ranked 21st in the state's preseason girls' Top 25 by ncrunners.com, look to win their third straight I-Meck title.
Hough's Jordan Wallace, a junior, has developed into one of the top runners in the Lake Norman area and should lead an upstart Huskies, which are ranked No. 21 in the ncrunners.com's boys Top 25.
Meanwhile, Cannon senior Tim Gruber looks to carry his team to the top, after finishing fifth at the NCISAA 3A state meet as a junior.
Davidson Day sophomore twins Jake and Rachel Bringewatt look to build on standout freshmen seasons and make the Patriots a factor in the 1A NCISAA race.