For more than 30 years, the Marshalltown boys' cross country program has been regarded as one of the best programs in the sport in the entire state.
The past two seasons have not gone as head coach Tim Bell planned, and with improvement and hard work, he is hoping to return to the traditional competitive program of the past in 2012.
"We are hoping to get back to what we are used to," Bell said. "And that is getting our entire team to the state meet. That hasn't happened for a few years."
Marshalltown has been to the state meet as a team 25 times in his 31 seasons as head coach. The Bobcats have placed second at state three times and third three more times. This year's squad will feature about 30 athletes, which is a low number compared to past seasons, according to Bell.
The good news is that the Bobcats return three starters from last season, including returning state qualifier Zach Wells, a senior who placed 41st at state with a personal-best time of 16 minutes, 8 seconds.
"He made a nice drop in his times last year," Bell said. "He became more competitive, too, a more mentally tough runner. I was proud of his improvements."
Wells was 14th at the conference meet last year and 10th at districts. This year, Bell expects his senior leader to run in the low 16s all season and maybe even crack the 16-minute barrier.
"He should be the guy for us who goes out and challenges the other top runners," Bell said. "He even could be ranked in the top 30 to start the season."
The other two runners back from last year's starting lineup include senior Daniel Talbert and junior Nathan Phillips. Bell said Talbert and Phillips have each had a good summer of training, and he hopes Talbert can eclipse the 16-minute barrier.
"We also need a big year from Nathan Phillips," Bell said. "He gained some valuable experience last year and needs to play a big role for us this season. I think he could be important and he needs to be important.
"This year's team has to have the mindset that we have to be a developing team, and that the improvements we make are for the end result," Bell said. "We have some work to do, and we need to improve as we go through the season."
Other runners who expect to make a run at the varsity lineup include sophomores Trae Petersen and Ellis Lincoln. Sophomore Hunter Barnard and Sam Johnson are two other runners who Bell expects could make an imprint on the varsity roster.
"Trae and Ellis were kind of thrown into the fire as freshmen last year, but we had no choice," Bell said. "They will need to grow this season into top runners."
The Bobcats will likely have four home meets this season. They will run two in the regular season and then also host the conference meet. Bell also stated that he has been told Marshalltown will again likely host the district meet.
"That is a nice reward for us," Bell said about the district meet. "It is kind of unheard of to host that many meets in one season. We are appreciative though of the college for letting us use the course. We are glad to be able to use their facility."
The CIML will again be loaded this season as defending champion Dowling Catholic welcomes back several varsity runners from a year ago. West Des Moines Valley finished eighth last year and welcomes back four runners, including the defending state champion. Ames was ninth last year and brings back three, while Waukee (11th) and Indianola (12th) each return five starters from 2011. Ankeny was 15th last year and the Hawks welcome back three starters.
"The goal for us as individuals is to get our top two runners near the top of as many meets as we can," Bell said. "I expect the other kids to improve each week. They need to collectively get better throughout the season so we can qualify for state as a team."