Still in its infancy as a program, Woodward-Granger cross country is ramping up its expectations with an exciting group returning for the 2019 season.

Just a matter of five years into the program with head coach Dave Smeltzer, the team is running strong with 30 members, a bump from the seven that the school started with not long ago.

That number also has some expanded reach as the team welcomes junior exchange student Vlad Dodon, the first time the team has had such teammate. Smeltzer said he's also excited for the speed returning to the trails this year.

Expectations run high with seniors Alex Bice and Dylan Steele on the boys side while junior Ava Petersen and Bella Milosevich are reaching for top slot as well.

Senior track star Emma Drake also joins the crew for the first time. A state qualifier in the 800-meter run this year, Drake said she hopes to build her endurance and speed by joining the cross country team in addition to her continued efforts with the volleyball team this fall.

Smeltzer added he expects big things from the underclassmen to not only join the team but compete for varsity spots.

A number of runners like Bice, Petersen, and Milosevich were all in summer sports as well which Smeltzer said made full summer programming more difficult as to not disrupt their seasons.

But seniors leaders like Andrew Anderson and parents helped run meet-ups at Jester Park to get the rest of the team warmed up in the offseason.

He added that it's not only each meet, but each practice the team is aiming for personal records.

Smeltzer said the team is held to some higher standards so by state qualifiers, the top times will be near the 18 or 19-minute mark, needing to stay motivated to keep rising in the charts.

Beyond the team's self-motivation, Smeltzer said the competition from the conference keeps pushing his group further.

Facing such heavy competition from the likes of state champ Madrid, Panorama and other top 15 schools, Smeltzer said training the team mentally is an important step.

“Rankings come out and [the team knows] how good our competition is,” Smeltzer said. “A lot of the schools in our conference, we're going to see every meet.”

There is also an immediate, tangible effect the conference has had on the Hawks.

To open the season, Smeltzer said it was important to bring in bigger schools like Saydel and West Marshall to the season-opening race.

As the host, he wants to push the competition as well as his team to the limits with something more in line with a “tough mud run” opposed to a normal 5K event to set the tone for the year with another win out of the gate.