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MUSCATINE — Tim Armstrong knows the talent is here.

The nine-year Muscatine girls cross country coach let his team know, too.

“I told them our first practice on [Aug. 10] that, whether you realize it or not girls, you have a chance to be the best cross country team that Muscatine has ever had, girls wise,” Armstrong said. “I don’t know if they really thought about that, but I truly believe we could be the best.”

Whether that turns to be prophetic or not, it’s not hard to see where Armstrong, who has been on the Muscatine staff since 1996, is coming from.

The Muskies, fresh off their second-straight state appearance, return their top five runners from a season ago, including a core of four runners — seniors Regan France and Larkin Chapman and juniors Brina Kraft and Danielle Roos — who enter their third season running varsity together this fall.

While they advanced to state, the 15th-place finish two seasons ago and an 11th-place finish last season have left them driven to not only return to Fort Dodge in October but finish in the top five.

“The last two years haven’t been the best for us but I feel like that also gives us learning lessons we can work on for this year, racing strategies we may or may not have done,” said Kraft, who finished fourth at the Class 4A state meet last season. “I know we’ve had some setbacks, but I think it’s only made us better as a team.”

Their return to state will not be without its challenges, the biggest of which is the change made by the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union to have girls run 5-kilometer races instead of the 4K courses they’ve come accustomed to.

Though it will remain an unknown until the start of the season, the Muskies have increased their training already this season, running longer distances both during their long runs and interval training on the high school track.

“It’s been really hard, but this is the hardest part of our season because once we hit October we’re going to be tapering off for state,” France said. “I feel we’re doing well with what we’re given.”

With Moriah Morter back, a sophomore who occupied the fifth spot in the lineup last season, the experience the group has with one another is something they think will lesson the impact of longer distances. They also believe their familiarity with allow them to approach races differently.

“I think this year we’re going to focus on pack running more,” Chapman said. “We’ll let Brina do her thing, but Danielle, Regan, me and Moriah Morter, I think we’re going to try to stick together a little more to pick people off like that.”

For the two spots in the lineup behind the five returners, competition is aplenty. Armstrong looks for junior Nicole Garrido, sophomore Emma Maynard or freshman Emmie Smith to compete for the spot, but mentioned Sarah Solt, Melissa Burzlaff and Abby Rusch as possibilities, too.

That kind of competitiveness could help the Muskies reach one of their other goals: Beating Pleasant Valley and winning the Mississippi Athletic Conference title.

“We’ve always strived to get where PV is. They’re a really good cross country team and they have a lot of girls that go out and I’m sure they push it hard every single workout,” Kraft said. “We’re still striving to beat them. I think, maybe, this year we could have a chance if we push it as hard as I think we can.”

And, despite all that is on its side, the Muskies know they cannot rest on their laurels.

“We all need to be setting team goals and individual goals,” Roos said. “Even if we increase the intensity of our workouts, I really think that teamwork and just staying positive throughout everything will make the difference between being a great team or just being an average team.”

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