With 25 more boys and girls cross country runners qualifying for the state meet this season, area cross country teams are hopeful 2015 will be another strong year for local harriers.
The Iowa High School Athletic Association and Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union agreed in April to expand the number of individual qualifiers for the state co-ed cross country meet in Fort Dodge from the top 10 finishers to the top 15 at state-qualifying meets.
That could be directly beneficial for runners that are expected to ascend to that level, like Ashley Canny and Jenessa Carpenter, the top two Columbus Community girls. Canny and Carpenter were 24th and 36th, respectively, at last season's state-qualifying meet in Ottumwa.
"Ashley and Jenessa are potentially all-conference type runners," Columbus coach Steve Riley said, referencing the All-SEISC teams that honor the top 15 finishers at the conference meet Oct. 8 at Cedarcrest Country Club. "And with the district expanding individual state qualifiers … they have a shot at that."
Wilton's Kaylee Ford is the lone girls state individual qualifier returning from area schools. She enters her junior campaign after finishing 10th at the state-qualifying meet and finishing 56th in the Class 1A girls race at Lakeside Municipal Golf Course.
With four of five returning starters including Ford, the Beavers might be in the best position to make a move for the top two automatic-qualifier spots in the team standings at the state-qualifying meet among area teams. The Wilton girls were seventh last season in Solon, with Wapello and Columbus Community finishing fifth and sixth, respectively, at Ottumwa. The Arrows will likely be rebuilding after losing several key pieces to graduation, however.
Maliree Reid, Maggie Peterson and Kailie Walker are the runners returning with experience for Wapello.
"Our girls team is still in the building stages," Wapello cross country coach Micah Peck said. "We have our work cut out for us if we want to compete as a team, but our focus will just be on building a strong foundation and continuing to run faster.
"The girls team is a very positive group. They work hard and hopefully we will be able to make some gains toward the end of the season."
West Liberty will be anchored by junior Reghan McNaul, who was 21st at a 2A state-qualifying meet last season for the seventh-place Comets after becoming the first Comet girl to qualify for the state meet in school history in her freshman season.
Louisa-Muscatine was 10th in the team standings at the 2A meet in Columbus Junction, and new L-M cross country coach Calvin Simmons is working in some different practice routines to keep the Falcons in peak shape.
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"We're implementing some more dynamic stretching and doing some drills on the track and some ab routines," Simmons said. "We're hoping we get more whole-body fitness and aren't just focusing on running."
Haily McClanahan and Allison Steahr are the top two returners for L-M. On the boys side, Lucas Nowak is the most notable exit for the Falcons, who were second at districts and went on to place 12th at the 2A state meet. Ben Chapman, Jaiden Starkweather and Jon Van Sickle, who were the No. 2 through No. 4 Falcon runners last season, are back to try for another trip to the state meet.
"We're going to have a good amount of base mileage (through practices) up until the conference meet and the end of the season," Simmons said, "and then we'll be moving away from mileage and focusing on building strength."
The Wapello boys will get a chance at some redemption after finishing 14th out of 15 teams at that 1A meet in Fort Dodge last season.
Though Josh Royal missed the state meet with a hamstring injury, he is one of six returning runners for Wapello, along with fellow seniors Dylan Maine and Ian Poe, juniors Jose Caro and Paul Johnson, and sophomores Trace Howard and Armando Osornio.
"I have a feeling our boys team will be highly competitive within itself," Peck said. "It is possible for our top seven to be a different group from week to week. … We have a competitive atmosphere at practice, which could translate into some good team scores."
Columbus Community's boys team is larger this season, after fielding just two runners at the state-qualifying meet in 2014 — individual qualifier Josh Keller and Adrian Santos. Juniors Tucker Morrison and J.D. Lekwa are among the newcomers to the team.
"We have two very good runners at the top of our lineup and we've added five or six that have the potential to be very good," Riley said.
Wilton, which ran seventh at a boys state-qualifying meet in Solon, returns a sizeable chunk of its running power, including Will Ball and Jon Henessee, but is looking to fill the spot of No. 1 runner Jeffrey Carson.
"We're willing to work hard, but there's not a lot of kids out," Wilton coach David Cook said.
West Liberty will be trying to move up the ladder in boys competition after a 13th-place finish out of 14 teams at the Columbus state-qualifying meet.