With the start of the 2019 cross country season comes high hopes for several area teams.
Apollo High School will look for another Class 3-A region title after finishing second a year ago, while Owensboro Catholic has its sights set on another Class A crown.
A quality offseason has Daviess County eyeing a Class 3-A region championship and another strong finish at state, while Owensboro expects its small group to garner top finishes, as well.
With no fewer than 10 runners looking to make an impact this season, Eagles coach Charlie Shoulta expects his squad to be right in the mix by the end of the year.
"Our main goal is bringing the regional championship back to Apollo," Shoulta said. "Last year, we finished runner-up by only four points (in the Class 3-A Region 1 meet) and this has been a huge motivator for the athletes over the summer. The team also wants to be in contention for a podium finish at the state championship."
A year ago, Apollo finished 16th in the state. With a strong crop of returners -- including juniors Ethan Dych, Ryan Payne, Jake Alvey and Leland Smith, along with freshman Thomas Ashby -- and a number of others looking to make an impact, the Eagles are confident they have the depth and talent to reach their high expectations in 2019.
At the same time, Shoulta said, no spots are guaranteed.
If the Eagles continue to operate as a team, though, he expects everyone to play an important role.
"Our strength over the last two to three years has been our ability to run as a pack," Shoulta said. "This is something we work on every day at practice. If we continue to improve on this facet of our racing, we should be able to compete with nearly anyone."
Though the Panthers return just two seniors to this year's squad, veteran coach Mark Fortney is counting on DC's crop of juniors to provide strong contributions.
Leading the way will be juniors Brady Terry and Alex Adams, who finished fourth and ninth in last year's Class 3-A Region 1 meet, respectively.
Others expected to make an impact will be seniors Ryan Ward and Jacob Nash, juniors Logan Gish, Parker Leachman, Jacob Kirk, Jacob Turner and Gavin Sanders, and sophomores Justin Shelton and Nathan Johnson. Newcomers Caleb Tidwell, Bryson McGary and Zach McCaslin will look for top-10 spots on the team, as well.
"Expectations are high for this squad," Fortney said. "First, we want to show small improvements daily. We want to be competitive in every meet we attend. Everyone has to be patient during races but also be ready at the right moment as the race progresses."
Fortney credited his runners with improved maturity and focus during offseason training, which has led to a strong bond amongst teammates.
"It's not about being the best on your team, but being the best for your team," Fortney said. "If they do that, good results will follow on and off the course. They've been a fun group to coach."
With senior Michael Ashley back to lead the Red Devils, coach Gary Mesplay has high hopes for his small, yet competitive, group.
"Michael will be returning as a senior that qualified to compete at the state meet last season," Mesplay said of Ashley, who went as an individual after placing 22nd in the Class 3-A Region 1 meet.
Alongside Ashley will be junior Nathanael Turner, another strong runner.
"(He) is going to be a difference-maker for us this year," Mesplay said. "He has been in the weight room and putting in the miles."
Newcomers expected to contribute include sophomore Reece Carroll, sophomore Adrien Askin and junior Lance Burdette.
"We don't have huge numbers at OHS this year, but I feel like we have the personnel to put together a competitive team," Mesplay said. "Our goal is to take our team to the Horse Park (for the state meet) this year."
Although the Aces lost some experience from last season, Catholic still has expectations to capture another Class A Region 2 title, along with a high showing at the state meet.
Leading the way for the Aces will be senior John Cason, who finished 11th in the state in 2018.
"He is coming off a record-setting track season, so we are looking for him to do great things this season," Catholic coach Scott Lowe said of Cason. "John should finish in the top five in the state this year."
Seniors Jude Neal and Logan Jones are also coming off a pair of productive track seasons and will be "instrumental in helping the team score well," Lowe added.
Junior Ty Gatten will be a key returner, while newcomers Wes Blondin, Court Hobelmann and Reece Peach are a trio of juniors who will be counted on.
"As a team, we will do our best to continue finishing in the top five at the state meet," Lowe said. "It will be an exciting year."
Veteran runner Chris Woodward and newcomer Jackson Turner will be a pair expected to lead the short-handed Hornets in 2019.
"Chris Woodward is a returning veteran who has the potential to do well this year," coach Wes Meserve said of the senior. "Jackson is an eighth-grader who I expect will have a breakout season. If those two work together and push each other, they should both have really good seasons."
With a smaller group, Meserve anticipates plenty of teaching this season, as well.
"Right now, we are just taking it one practice at a time," he said. "We only have four boys, so there's plenty of time to focus on each individual. Other than Chris, the boys are so young, it's really hard to set any expectations."
The Mustangs will feature an experienced group led by senior Jonah Mitchell, who won a state championship in the 3,200-meter run during last season's Class 3-A track and field meet.
Mitchell, who finished second in Kentucky in last year's 3-A cross country meet, will look to go one step further this time around.
Other top returners for Muhlenberg County include junior Stetson Childress, freshman Jake Strader and sophomores Carson Groves and Grant Mefford.
The Mustangs placed fifth in last year's Class 3-A Region 1 meet.
Even after losing three seniors from last season's squad, Raiders coach Emily Payne wants her team aiming high in 2019.
"Our goals are just to try to be competitive within our region (Class A Region 2)," Payne said.
With a group of returning sophomores and incoming freshman Gavin Howard, Payne said success will come if her team simply works hard and believes in itself.
"To be successful, we are going to have to really get these kids to realize that they can be competitive if they will strive for that," she said. "They just have to put their minds to it and give it their all. Mental preparedness is just as important as physical."