MUSCATINE — It was the best of both worlds.

As freshmen and sophomores on an experienced Muscatine boys cross country team last season, Alex Bautista, Tyler Olson, Garrett Dolan and Kyle Hoffman were given the opportunity to prove themselves among their peers and against the best the state had to offer.

The experience of running on the freshman/sophomore level and on the varsity level, where all four were in the lineup in a Class 4A state-qualifying meet last October, gave the quartet a good base as they step in to fill bigger roles for the Muskies this fall.

“It was definitely eye-opening to be running varsity. I ran one varsity meet my freshman year,” said Dolan, a junior. “Last year, I was dealing with some injuries. ... [I]t really showed me the competitiveness on the varsity level, that I really needed to step it up to be able to be successful.”

The quartet returns this season, buoyed by Bautista’s 4A state meet appearance last season as a sophomore, to lead a Muscatine team looking to fill the void of graduated seniors Brady Eversmeyer, Eric Heckman and Caleb Hoffman.

“We’re going to have a pretty complete team, but most of the year we’re going to have our five, six and seven people, I think, trying to fill the void of the three that left,” Muscatine coach Chris Foxen said. "That’s a big void."

It helps that the returners have embraced their roles as leaders, despite being just sophomores and juniors, and have put the work in this summer, even as they’ve had to overcome obstacles.

“I started to put some pressure on them to develop their talent and make sure they go out for track, which they did; to make sure they run in the summer, which we’ve done a really good job of,” Foxen said.

Bautista missed some time during the first week of practice due to an injury but came back to win the 5-kilometer men’s division at the Watermelon Stampede on Aug. 15. He ran the most miles of anyone this summer, while Dolan said he has ran the most miles he ever has in the summer.

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Olson, meanwhile, had a bigger obstacle to overcome: A staph infection in his ankle that needed surgery, which took place June 12.

“After two weeks of not being able to walk, I was able to bike. That helped me get cardio back without being at practice,” Olson said. “Once I got to practice, I was still a little restricted. I did less mileage in weeks and built up. Now I’m back to doing most of the workout.”

While those four runners have stepped up, Foxen is taking a long-term approach.

“This year is going to be another year of growing. What’s really nice about those four, if you really think about it, is they're going to get another year together,” Foxen said. “… We’re looking at this as a two-year process and we understand this year it might be very difficult to have any type of team aspirations for state, we’ll see how the season goes, but we definitely want to make more of an impact in the second year with this group.”

The biggest question this season is finding who slots in behind the top four. Foxen said others have put the work in to step in on varsity, even if the Muskies have less depth than in the recent seasons with 18 runners out this fall.

“We’ve got guys stepping up like Scott Shafer. He did really well at our time trial,” Olson said. “And Cristian Raya and Andy Townsend, they’re doing really well.”

This group believes it can make some noise, too.

“If we can be consistent and stay healthy,” Dolan said, “I really think we can gain our momentum into the mid-to-late season and Muscatine cross country could be something to talk about.”

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