The Ballard cross country teams have high expectations in 2017 as the girls look to return to state and the boys aim to surprise.

The Ballard girls return several major contributors off last year’s squad that placed 14th at state in Class 3A and was ranked as high as fifth. The Bomber girls have qualified for state each of the past three years.

“These girls know what it means to work hard and have built a record of success,” Ballard head cross country coach Scott Barth said. “Several have been running consistently since last season ended and they want to accomplish more. The freshmen look really good right now, and competition for the seven varsity spots will be challenging.”

Back for the Ballard girls are lead runners Ellie Twedt and Lauren Matthews, talented veterans Summer McVicker and Anna Zielke, and another strong young runner in Hailey Cole. Twedt, Matthews and Cole are sophomores and McVicker and Zielke will be senior leaders.

All five runners made all-Raccoon River Conference last fall.

Twedt’s top 5-kilometer time in 2016 was 19 minutes, 40 seconds and she placed 18th individually in 3A at state. Matthews, who was unable to run at state last year due to an injury, peaked with a time of 20:21 last season and Cole’s best 2016 effort was 21:51.

McVicker’s top showing last year was 20:57 and Zielke’s topped out at 21:35.

The other top candidates to fill a top-seven varsity spot for the Ballard girls in 2017 are freshmen Caitlin Maher, Josie Fleischmann, Ashley Wuestenberg and Quinn Thompson.

Seniors Kari Holmes and Abby Catus and sophomore Rachel Wohlgemuth are coming off injuries, but could contend for varsity spots later in the season. Holmes and Wohlgemuth were all-RRC runners last year with respective season-best times of 20:32 and 20:52 and Catus peaked at 21:45 in 2016.

Barth said other runners might step. But overall depth is the team’s biggest issue with only 18 runners.

“The danger that we are at risk for is in the small overall number of girls out,” Barth said. “If injuries start sneaking into our personnel, it could affect our team’s performances. We, as coaches, will need to create a solid workout plan that mixes hard workouts with appropriate time for recovery.”

The top meets for the Bomber girls this season will be the Pella and Ballard meets at the start of the season, the Nevada and Heartland Classic meets in the middle of the year, and the Norwalk and RRC meets to close out the regular season.

If the Bomber girls can stay healthy, they have an excellent shot at improving on last season’s placing at state.

“These girls are hungry for added success at the state meet and willing to put in the work to get that done,” Barth said. “I would be surprised if we don’t compete for the conference title and possibly a (state qualifying meet) title as well. From there, a top-10 state meet finish — and possibly top five — is not out of the question.”

The Ballard boys are coming off a season that saw the team place in the top four at four meets. The Bomber boys don’t have as much experience as the girls, but they have strong numbers.

“We have 35 boys out this year,” Barth said. “With the added new athletes to the experience that we have returning, we will definitely have competition for varsity spots.”

The Bomber boys will have to go without individual state qualifier Noah Kohut-Jackson, who opened-enrolled at Ames. But they return juniors Erik Ledet, Ryan Ledet, Nathan Wuestenberg, Chase Winterboer and Zane Charter and sophomore Jace Beall.

Wuestenberg ran a 5-kilometer time of 18:20 in 2016 and Erik Ledet peaked at 18:30. Beall’s fastest time last fall was 18:28 and Winterboer’s was 18:54.

Senior Owen Zunkel also has quality varsity experience, peaking with a time of 18:20 in 2016.

The top newcomers for the Ballard boys will be senior James Gute, sophomore Carter Thompson and freshmen Gage Long and Andrew Whiteling.

“There is potential for improvement in this team,” Barth said. “Lots of solid newcomers and returning experienced veterans.”

The top meets for the Ballard boys will be the Pella, Ballard, Nevada, Norwalk and RRC meets. If the Bombers can steadily progress during each meet, they could make some noise come time for the state qualifying meet.

“I love the overall attitude in these guys that I have seen so far,” Barth said. “With hard work, I think we could surprise some people and be competitive using our pack mentality and pushing beyond the comfort zone.”

The Ballard cross country teams open the season today at the first-ever Collins-Maxwell Invitational. The meet takes place at the Center Grove Orchard near Cambridge and it begins at 4:30 p.m.