Coach Ben Duea has plenty to be optimistic about as the Dallas Center-Grimes boys’ cross country team begins competition this season.

The Mustangs have increased participation by nearly 50 percent over last year, from 20 participants in 2012 to 29 this fall. That includes a talented freshman class that won the middle school conference title last year, and five starters from the varsity squad that took second at the Raccoon River Conference meet, DC-G’s final race as a member of the conference.

The Mustangs are members of the Little Hawkeye Conference now, and the competition will be steep. Pella (second), Knoxville (sixth) and Grinnell (ninth) all finished in the top 10 of last year’s Class 3A state meet.

"We’re looking forward to the challenge, but at the same time with where we’re at as a program, we feel we’ve set ourselves up for a good spot to compete in that conference," said Duea, the team’s third-year coach. "We don’t think we’ll dip off from where we were in the last conference."

Leading the charge will be senior Austin Goode, a two-time all-conference finisher who was 15th in last year’s race. Also returning are senior Chad Connelly, junior Colin Martin and sophomores Nick Smith and Josh Paulson.

Seniors Jared Pugh and Nick Drucker are also possible contributors, as are junior Collin Quass and sophomore Blake Schaben.

"Collin has had a tremendous summer and Blake has been terrific so far," Duea said.

The team lost several key pieces from last year’s team to graduation, including their No. 1, Josh Prohaska. But with the increase in participation and a talented corps of returners, Duea is confident there won’t be a drop-off.

"We’ve got a pack of seven to 10 guys that will compete where our two guy was last year," he said. "The depth of the program is so much farther ahead than last year. We’ve got some guys that I think will run really fast."