BELLEVILLE — The Belleville East Lancers head into the start of the 2013 cross country season facing many of the same obstacles they have to deal with every year.
Namely two of the top programs in the state in Edwardsville and O'Fallon.
The difference this season for East may be in sheer numbers. For the first time, Lancers coach Bryan Mitchell has more than 30 athletes on both the girls and boys teams.
"We've had good numbers before, but this is the first time I can ever remember having over 30 boys and 30 girls in the same year,'' Mitchell said. "We have some good upperclassmen back, but I'm really excited about the number of freshmen and sophomores we have out.
"I think a lot of it has to do with kids wanting to get in better shape and also I think kids want to be part of something. They want to be part of a team and that's great.''
East, which opens its season Saturday at the Granite City Invitational, has some talented and experienced runners returning.
On the girls side, four seniors will be heavily counted on. Erin Kincaid, Myiah Mackins, Maggie Munie and Audry Winn all were varsity letter winners a year ago, while Sidne' Williamson and Haley Inyart are both top-notch underclassmen who ran last season.
Mitchell also sees a lot of potential from a group of 10 freshmen on the roster. Mitchell said that teams like O'Fallon and Edwardsville, schools that have junior-high cross country programs, have a big advantage over those schools who don't.
"Teams like O'Fallon and Edwardsville, those kids come in as freshman and they've been running for one or two years. A lot of our kids come in and the first time they've run a cross country race is their freshman years,'' Mitchell said. "It puts us behind, but we just do the best we can.
"The one thing about the kids who run cross country is that they're disciplined and they work very hard.''
On the boys side, senior and three-year varsity runner Ray Schultz leads the way, while senior Brandon Day also returns after a strong junior season.
Mitchell also has three top underclassmen in sophomore Brenden Karwoski and juniors Nick Lopez and Remington Ibarra returning.
Mitchell knows that competing with two-time Class 3A state runner-up O'Fallon and Edwardsville will be difficult. But the Lancers veteran coach is optimistic his team will have a good year.
"Our goals are to be competitive in each our of major invitationals and finish in the upper half of the Southwestern Conference,'' Mitchell said. "I think we've got the kids that can do that.''