Doug Bacon already knew there'd be some shoes to fill.
Finding out who will claim those spots may take a little time.
Graduating four of its top seven from last year's state qualifier meet and losing a fifth this summer to knee surgery, the Marshalltown girls cross country team has a wide-open competition to fill out its varsity seven.
Three-year varsity standout Rachel Blagg returns for her final campaign and leads a quartet of runners that have established themselves early. It's the final three spots that remain up for grabs.
Blagg is coming off a 19th-place finish at the state qualifier and is joined by sophomore Ashley Macbeth, who finished 53rd on the Bobcats' sixth-place district contingent.
Michaela Huey (23rd), Wynn Tan (30th), Victoria Jones (44th) and Abby Snyder (46th) all graduated last spring and Ellyn Boland (38th) will miss her entire junior season following knee surgery this summer.
Those departures have opened the door for Boland's sister, Ruth, and sophomore Hannah Shirar, who have solidified themselves as varsity contributors. Shirar has been right with Macbeth in early workouts, while Ruth Boland also has been near the front despite battling a hip issue.
"I know who the top four are but after that it's a little dicey," said Bacon, who enters his 12th season at the helm. "There's five girls in the running for those last three spots. It might be a very handy thing that we can run 10 in the varsity on Thursday, just because it's been so hard to tell who the top seven really are."
There's no doubt as to who will be leading the Bobcats' seven.
Blagg, who finished one spy shot of the state meet as a sophomore, enters her senior season with what Bacon considers her best summer of training yet.
"The quality of her training was much better than it's been in the past," Bacon said. "It's kind of been broken up in the past with different things she's had going on in the summer. She was able to develop a little bit of continuity there as far as how she was getting her miles accumulated over the summer.
"She's looked really good early on in practice and she hasn't had trouble in any workout of hitting the goals I've set for her."
At least six more runners are in contention for the final three varsity slots.
Seniors Becky Schwartzenburg, Erin Carmichael and Kierra Carbajal, junior Daesha Underhill, sophomore Aspen Chadderdon, and freshman Victoria Johnson could all work their way into the mix.
While the Bobcats have shown a good work ethic through early practice sessions, it may take some time to overcome their inexperience.
"It make take a few meets for us to get over that," Bacon said. "They work hard, but developing into racing hard and racing as a team - when you haven't done that at the varsity level - it just takes a little bit of time.
"These first two or three meets could be quite an adventure for us."
Marshalltown hits the road for its next two meets before returning to MCC for the 41st annual Bobcat Invitational on Sept. 11. The Bobcats also will host the Central Iowa Conference meet on Oct. 16 and the state qualifier meet on Oct. 23.
The Central Iowa Conference remains the deepest league in the state with six league schools placing in the top-10 at state last year. Dowling Catholic is the defending state champion, Ames was runner-up and Johnston took fourth, while Waukee (6th), Urbandale (8th) and Ankeny Centennial (10th) extend the league's talent pool.
"It's hard to describe the conference cross country meet," Bacon said. "It's sort of like taking the better part of your state field and running against them."
Bacon is hopeful his scoring quintet can approach a 1:30 split to start the season and eventually whittle it down to a minute by season's end. And getting his top five under the 17-minute mark would bode well not just for this season but for the future.
"I'd feel really good if we could get all of our top five under 17:00, that's a good goal for us," Bacon said. "Knowing that most of our kids are back, that would be a good ending point. Even if we don't qualify for state, we'd feel like we'd have some momentum going into next year."
Thursday's Early Bird meet features a pair of ranked squads including Class 4A No. 10 Urbandale and Class 2A No. 9 East Marshall. The girls varsity race is slated for 5:20 p.m.