Another season of the Eastern Connecticut Conference's Got Talent, the cross country edition, begins this week.
On the girls' side, the serious individual contenders are familiar runners.
Norwich Free Academy's Brianna Lenehan, East Lyme's Eva Christensen, Ledyard's Jordan Houdeshell, Waterford's Sara-Caitrin Mandelburg and the Griswold duo of Krystn Larose and Melina Labossiere all finished in the top 10 in the ECC Championship race. And Plainfield junior Kerri Ruffo will attempt to defend her title.
The boys' side is auditioning a new pack of talent to fill the void left by the departure of several elite runners. Seven of the first eight finishers in the ECC meet graduated. Only NFA senior Kyle Liang, Bacon Academy senior Matt McAllister and East Lyme senior Scott Butler are back from the top 10.
"It's going to make for exciting competition," NFA boys' coach Chad Johnson. "It will be good to see who is in the mix."
Make that an exciting and unpredictable season.
Here's a snapshot of the girls' and boys' ECC divisional races.
Having a marquee runner doesn't guarantee team success.
Quality depth is also important.
Some teams are blessed with both.
NFA usually fits into that category.
Lenehan, a senior, is one of the elite runners in the state. She's coming off a season in which she finished in the top 10 in four big races, including second in Class LL and seventh in the State Open.
The Wildcats are one of the few ECC programs that can quickly recover from roster losses. They're expected to repeat as Large Division champions despite relying on some young talent.
East Lyme, which lost eight of its top 10 runners, has a true gem in Christensen, a senior who hopes to better her impressive performance last year when she placed sixth in Class L and fifth in the ECC.
Fitch will try to regroup after losing all-state runner Brandy LeClair.
In the Medium Division, Ledyard is coming off a memorable season. Even after losing three of their top four runners including standout Cedar Nelson, the Class M runner-up, the defending Medium Division champions are still worthy contenders.
Houdeshell, an All-Area runner and sixth place finisher in the ECC meet as a sophomore, is a major reason why the Colonels are a threat. But they'll need to develop their young runners.
"She could ultimately be better than Cedar Nelson," Ledyard coach Bruce Douglass said. "She's got the talent."
Stonington, which has up-and-coming runner Antonia Reynolds, a sophomore, and the Ruffo-led Plainfield are two other teams to watch. Mandelburg, who qualified for the State Open as a junior, leads Waterford.
"Plainfield and Stonington look good," Douglass said. "We've got some work to do if we're going to knock them off. Plainfield has the edge."
Griswold, a proven powerhouse, will be tough to beat in the Small Division. The Wolverines are loaded with Alyssa Brehler, the All-Area runner-of-the-year and Class SS champion, Larose and Labossiere making for a lethal combination.
"Griswold might be as good as anybody in the whole league," Montville coach Tim Egan said. "They'll have all those girls back and will be better than ever."
It may take some time for the front-runners to emerge from the pack.
East Lyme is in great position to overtake defending champion NFA in the Large Division. The Vikings return four of their top six runners from a team that placed third in Class MM but fell just short of qualifying for the State Open. Ostrowski, an All-Area pick who finished 11th in Class MM as a junior, carries the torch for the Vikings. Butler is another prove runner.
NFA took a major hit, losing eight seniors including quality runners Dan Cardin, Derek French, Andrew Weiler, but welcome back Kyle Liang, an All-Area performer. The Wildcats also re-loaded with their usual large turnout this fall, so it is hard to count them out.
Johnson is looking forward to the season.
"These are the fun years," Johnson said. "You have to strategize and get kids to run fast and coach them up. … Our goal every year is to win the ECC, regardless of the team."
In the Medium Division, Stonington has an interesting team. The Bears will mix young talent with an experienced top seven. Senior Teddy Peglow, an All-ECC Medium selection, will lead the way.
Montville just may emerge as the front-runner in the Small Division. Senior Jesse Joseph and junior Dan Linkinhoker give the Indians a lethal one-two punch. With their top five back, their goal is to qualify for the State Open for the first time in quite a few years.