Eastern Hancock

Coach: Rex Putt (11th season)

2015 recap: The Royals finished fifth at the Mid-Hoosier Conference meet. Then-junior Gabe Blake advanced to the Carmel Semistate as an individual.

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Leading the way: Gabe Blake returns to seek a school record of 16:54, needing to shave 19 seconds off his personal best of 17:13.

Key returners: Gabe Blake (12), Will Huffman (11)

Outlook: The Eastern Hancock cross-country team is feeling the effects of the Royals’ departure from the Mid-Hoosier Conference just like the other teams in Charlottesville, but one major goal remains for the 2016 Royal runners.

“Our first goal was always to win conference, so that takes it away, but we are still pushing for the boys team to qualify for regional as a team,” head coach Rex Putt said.

Having a true No. 1 runner isn’t something Putt needs to worry about. Senior Gabe Blake returns after qualifying for semistate as an individual in 2015.

Behind Blake, the Royals will look toward junior Will Huffman to post a solid score at the big meets. In place of the conference meet, which was the event the Royals pointed to each season, Eastern Hancock will participate in the Yorktown Invitational. Interestingly, they still will run the course where the old conference meet took place at Trition Central in their first race of the season.

The Eastern Hancock boys cross-country program has never qualified for regional as a team, but Putt said he believes he has talent that gives them a fighting chance this season.

Putt also is looking forward to developing sophomore Skyler Schrope and freshman Nick Edwards. Schrope played football in 2015, but after success on the track last spring, he decided to make the switch.

“We’ve only got seven runners for the boys this year,” Putt said. “But as long as we continue developing talent, the program will continue to improve.”

Season opener: The Royals start the year at the Early Bird Invitational hosted by Triton Central on Aug. 15 at 5 p.m.

Greenfield-Central

Coach: Aaron Smith (third year)

2015 recap: The Cougars were second at sectional and won its first-ever regional title to advance into the Carmel Semistate. They were runner-ups at county and third in the Hoosier Heritage Conference.

Leading the way: Jacob “Miguel” Hansen is this season’s captain and fastest returner from the 2015 season. He ran a season-best 16:31 at the Ben Davis Invitational.

Key Returners: Jacob Hansen (12), Cooper Hanson (11), Parker Niemeier (10), Zac Archibald (11), Will Wickham (10), Joel Carpenter (12), Clayton Jenkins (12).

Outlook: Going into the 2015 season, expectations were high for the Greenfield-Central cross-country team, and the runners delivered. Winning the first regional championship in school history, the Cougars came as close as ever to qualifying for the state meet, a tough feat in the brutal Carmel Semistate.

From that team, the Cougars lost their top-two runners. However, with two upperclassmen set to replace them, their goal remains the same.

“We’ve made it to semistate for six straight seasons, and I think we have the talent to continue that streak,” third-year Cougars coach Aaron Smith said.

Senior Jacob “Miguel” Hansen and junior Cooper Hanson are stepping into the top-two spots. “Miguel and Cooper should be able to run with and challenge the top runners in the county” Smith said. Hansen’s best time was a 16:41 last year, while Cooper Hanson got stronger as the season went on, running a 16:53 during the Cougars’ regional win.

For the Cougars to advance throughout the tournament as a team, they will need untested newcomers to fill the crucial 3-4-5 spots at each meet. Particularly, Smith expects those runners to emerge from a group of Parker Niemeier, Zac Archibald, Will Wickham and Greg Flora.

Season Opener: The Cougars start the year at the Richmond Invitational on Aug. 20 at 5 p.m.

Mt. Vernon

Coach: Bruce Kendall (39th year)

2015 Recap: The Marauders finished 18th overall as a team at the 2015 IHSAA State Finals after winning a sectional title and placing second and third in regional and semistate competition, respectively. Mt. Vernon also finished second at the Hoosier Heritage Conference meet and first at the Hancock County meet.

Leading the way: Junior Drew Bluethmann returns with the most experience after the departure of a deep senior class. He placed 137th at the state meet in a time of 17:22.

Key Returners: Drew Bluethmann (11), Trey Klevickas (11), Timmy Broaders (11).

Outlook: Mt. Vernon cross-country coach Bruce Kendall can’t remember the last time he didn’t have a senior on his roster. In fact, this season might be the first.

After graduating “a farm” of runners from last season, including Marauders distance legends Christian Noble and Aaron Rush, Kendall finds himself in uncharted waters.

And he’s never enjoyed himself more.

“The team is so young that any newcomer could rise,” Kendall said.

Practically flipping the program upside down, Kendall returns just one runner with varsity experience. Junior Drew Bluethmann helped Mt. Vernon claim its third consecutive sectional title while winning the Hancock County meet and finishing second in the Hoosier Heritage Conference.

The Marauders followed it with second and third place finishes at the regional and semistate, respectively. Noble was fourth overall at the state finals while Rush was 19th.

“We saw this coming,” Kendall said. “I told Drew two years ago he had to be ready his junior season.”

Noble is running at Lee University while Rush will walk on at Purdue, according to Kendall.

Bluethmann finished 137th overall at state, which will provide Kendall with at least one body who knows the ins and outs of a long, grueling season. In all, there are 18 freshman or sophomores on this year’s roster.

Also expected to contribute are juniors Trey Klevickas, Timmy Broaders, Alex Carver and Cody Pasma.

Broaders has talent, Kendall said, but is still adjusting to the sport. He is also a swimmer at Mt. Vernon. Pasma and Carver have never run cross country.

Also new to the program is assistant coach Kean Coy. He graduated from the University of Indianapolis and attended Blackford High School (Hartford City).

Together, they helped the Marauders log plenty of miles this offseason while also finding time to hit the weight room.

Mt. Vernon, according to the longtime head coach, also enters the season without a spot in the top half of the rankings — another feat that is rare as of late.

County rivals Greenfield-Central and New Palestine are ranked 39th and 44th in the preseason poll, according to inccstats.com.

However, although young, with Kendall’s experience as a head coach (since 1975), counting the Marauders out would be unwise.

“Everyone is looking to get even with us and give us a shot in the mouth. We’re going to take all these punches, and come tournament time, we will see what happens,” he said.

Season opener: The Marauders open their season Aug. 15 at Triton Central at 5:30 p.m.

New Palestine

Coach: Chuck Myers (second year)

2015 recap: After placing third at the Hancock County meet, the Dragons finished fifth in conference, sectional and regional action before placing 20th at the Carmel Semistate.

Leading the way: Senior Chase Crowder returns for New Palestine. He led the team with a 94th-place finish (17:14) in semistate competition last season.

Key returners: Chase Crowder (12), Samuel Voelz (12), Kyler Harrison (10), Caleb Stirm (10).

Outlook: In Chuck Meyer’s second season in control, expectations are as high as ever for the New Palestine boys’ cross country program.

With a chunk of its roster returning from the 2015-16 season, Meyers believes his Dragons should compete for a spot atop the Hoosier Heritage Conference standings come season’s end.

But that’s just the start.

“I think we can compete with any team in the conference,” Meyers said. “I think it will be tight with a lot of good teams.”

Seniors Chase Crowder and Samuel Voelz return with experience and will be expected to lead a talented team that returns six of its top-seven runners from a season ago.

“They are in for a good season this year,” Meyers said.

Crowder led the team with a 94th-place finish (17:14) at New Palestine’s semistate race last season.

Sophomores Kyler Harrison and Caleb Stirm add depth while Caleb Eagleson is out for the team for the first time after a successful spring in track.

Harrison and Stirm both ran in the 17-minute range last season. And although new, Eagleson has postseason running experience, he ran on the Dragons’ 3,200-meter relay team that advanced to the state finals.

Numbers are also solid, Meyers said, as 26 kids are out for the program this season.

The preseason polls have been friendly to the Dragons, too, as New Palestine is slotted at No. 44 in the state, according to inccstats.com. County rival Greenfield-Central enters just ahead of them at No. 39.

Season opener: The Dragons begin their season on Aug. 16 at home against Herron. The meet will start at 5 p.m.

— By Kris Mills

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Kris Mills is a sports reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 317-477-3230 or kmills@greenfieldreporter.com.