The Ballard girls are shooting for a fifth-consecutive trip to state and the Bomber boys are striving for steady improvement as the 2018 cross country season gets underway this week.

The Ballard girls are coming off a 10th-place finish at state in Class 3A last year. With the return of five experienced runners from that team, the Bombers hope to do even better this fall.

“I think the women will continue on their steady presence in central Iowa,” Ballard head girls’ cross country coach Scott Barth said. “We return five of our seven state runners, and are adding a solid group of freshmen, who will give us even more depth.

“I expect pretty fierce competition for our varsity spots, which hopefully drives us to even greater heights.”

Junior Ellie Twedt and sophomore Caitlin Maher are the top returning runners for the girls.

Last year, Twedt placed second at the Raccoon River Conference meet, third at the state qualifying meet in Pella and 35th at state. Her fastest 5-kilometer time of 2017 was 19 minutes, 32 seconds.

Maher took fourth at the RRC meet, 10th at the qualifying meet and 49th at state. Her best time last year was 20:11.

Juniors Hailey Cole and Rachel Wohlgemuth and sophomore Josie Fleischmann are Ballard’s other top returning runners.

In 2017, Cole was Ballard’s most improved runner, peaking with a time of 20:57 at state and adding a sixth-place finish at the RRC meet. Wohlgemuth overcame an injury to take ninth at conference a year ago and her best time was 20:49.

Fleischmann finished 11th at the conference meet last season and her top time was 21:52.

Four freshmen could also figure in the varsity mix. Meg Rietz, Brooke Loew, Kate Huisinga and Mya Ehresman all could make an immediate impact for the Bombers.

“We don’t have a bus-full of women on the team, but we are pretty deep with talent,” Barth said. “That should lead to friendly competition on the team and help us in the long run.”

Barth said how good the girls can be depends on how tough they are mentally.

“I think we have a lot of perfectionists on this team and sometimes that leads them to overthink the situation and put too much stress on themselves,” Barth said. “If we can find the right balance of confidence and mental toughness — that’s when we are going to make it over the hump and compete with the elite programs in the state.

“Again, we have the athletes, we just need to fine-tune what we are doing and help them be confident and mentally prepared.”

The big meets for Ballard will be its home meet on Sept. 10, along with a meet on the Central College course in Pella, and the Norwalk Invitational. Ballard also hosts the RRC meet on Oct. 9.

“These are key meets in that they give us solid feedback against quality competition,” Barth said.

If the girls can stay healthy, they have a great shot at outperforming the 2017 team that won both its conference and 3A state qualifying meets.

“I think our ultimate goal is to retain our conference and regional titles on our way to another top-10 finish at state and possibly even top five,” Barth said. “We are still a pretty young team — we expect more talent coming in again next season.”

The Ballard boys placed fourth at last year’s RRC meet and also finished in the top four at four other meets in 2017, including first at the Spartan Early Bird Invitational. Barth is looking for continued growth in 2018.

“I think we will see some continued improvement on the (boys’) side this season,” Barth said. “We have quality returning upperclassmen this season that continue to dedicate themselves to the sport. I also think we have some promising young talent that will help in the depth department.”

The top returning runners for the Ballard boys this fall are seniors Ryan Ledet and Nathan Wuestenberg and junior Jace Beall.

In 2017, Ledet ran an average 5-kilometer time of 19:24 and Wuestenberg averaged 19 minutes flat. Beall was the team’s top runner a year ago, averaging a time of 18:51 and topping out at 18:04.

“Ryan Ledet seems to be as healthy as he has ever been for us and he has been showing good growth,” Barth said. “Fellow senior Nathan Wuestenberg also appears poised for a good season. Jace Beall, who emerged as our top runner last season, appears to be picking up where we left off last year. These three appear to be the leaders for now, but there is a solid group that could rise up to challenge with a few more miles and time to develop.”

Senior Erik Ledet ran an average time of 19:16 last and could also be a major contributor, but he first must overcome health issues.

“We are still holding onto hope that Erik Ledet can get healthy for the season,” Barth said. “(It) would be a huge gain for us in that he has similar ability to his brother.”

Seniors Chase Winterboer, Zane Charter and Seth Wohlgemuth, junior Carter Thompson and sophomore Gage Long also have quality varsity experience. Last year, Winterboer ran an average time of 19:01, Charter averaged a 19:28, Wohlgemuth a 20:01, Thompson a 19:02 and Long a 19:54.

Christopher Lee and Conner Hill are two freshmen that could help out at the varsity level.

“I am looking forward to seeing where the dedication, in many of these guys, takes the team,” Barth said. “We have a pretty cohesive group at the top of the lineup that want to do more than just be OK. They have the desire and drive to push out of that comfort zone and I am looking forward to seeing where that gets us. The biggest thing I have seen in the preseason is how the men have solid leaders that are bringing the younger guys along with their momentum.”

Like with the girls, the meets Barth is most looking forward to for the boys are the home meet and at Pella, Norwalk and the RRC meet.

Ballard’s cross country season begins today at the 2018 Spartan Early Bird Invitational. The meet will be held at the Center Grove Orchard near Maxwell.