No matter how you slice it, things just won't be the same around the Tewksbury High boys track team this winter.
With 35-year coaching legend Steve Levine having retired last June, the highly successful TMHS track program can't help but have a different feel to it.
It will be up to 2002 Tewksbury High graduate Bill Meuse to carry on the winning tradition that was established by Levine, and the first thing Muese has to do is find a bunch of runners to replace one of the most decorated graduating classes in recent memory.
Guys like sprinters Anthony Arcari and Pat Bernardo and hurdlers Richard Kirby and Ryan Vibber have graduated and taken loads of hardware with them. Distance men like Colin Foley and Brian Gugger are gone, as are high jumper Stefan Monteiro and shot putter Dan Sugrue.
Each of those athletes finished in the top 10 in the Merrimack Valley Conference in at least one event last winter, while Arcari was the league's sprint champion and Kirby was the league's top hurdler.
With the indoor season opener just two days away, Meuse is trying to put together a starting line-up that will be as competitive as the old Levine teams, including last year's Merrimack Valley Division 2 championship squad.
"We've got a lot of holes to fill," Meuse said. "It's pretty wide open right now. We're pretty inexperienced."
The only area in the Tewksbury line-up where Meuse can rely on some experience is in the distance events, where seniors Kip Horahan, Tim Conklin and Brendan Blair return. Junior miler Brian Amaral is the team's most accomplished returner, coming off an extremely strong cross country season.
Seniors CJ Sutherland (300 meters), Charlie Marquis (600) and Chris Boyages (sprints) will be called upon to step into the limelight and provide leadership roles.
Besides Amaral, junior sprinter Roy Felix is the team's most experienced runner. He'll run the 50-yard dash and the 300.
Predicatably, Amaral, Horahan, Blair, Conklin and Felix all performed well in the team's scrimmage at Andover Friday afternoon, as did junior shot putter John Fiorello, who opened many eyes by throwing 45-10 in the scrimmage.
Sophomore Dom Rosado also had an impressive day Friday, running well in the 50-yard dash and clearing 5-6 in the high jump. Sophomore shot putter Steve DeFrancesco threw over 42 feet, and junior strong man Christian Taylor (who wrestled last winter) is back in the shot put, too. Junior newcomer James Arrington has 40-foot potential in the shot, too.
"We're going to be competitive in the shot put, which we really haven't been in winter track lately," Meuse said.
Freshman distance runner Mike Famiglietti has also shown great potential in training, as has freshman sprinter Jimmy Hirtle, and hurdlers Eddie Matovu (sophomore), Joe Poli (junior) and Nick Sousa (junior). Newcomers Ryan Hartnett and Zach Jacobs (both juniors) should help out in the 300 while Sousa, Marquis and freshman Seth Auger are the top candidates in the 600.
Matovu and Poli are expected to join Rosdao in the high jump.
While question marks abound, the one thing Meuse is confident in is the fact that the team will work at least as hard as its competititon this year.
"We're gonna compete like hell," Meuse said. "We've talked to them about going out and doing everything you can to beat that guy in the next lane. That's what we're trying to instill in their minds."
And of course, Meuse knows the comparisons to the legendary Levine will be inevitable.
"He's not going to be easy to replace," said Meuse, who had served as an assistant coach under Levine since 2007. "It'll be a good challenge for me. It's probably a little harder to come into an already successful program like this one and keep it successful, than to build one up. But I'm up for the challenge."
As luck would have it, one of Meuse's biggest challenges will come immediately, when the team opens its season with a tri-meet at Andover High against Central Catholic and Andover on Tuesday. A week later the Redmen will open the defense of their MVC Division 2 title with an important tri-meet at Methuen against Dracut and Methuen.
"The goal is to win the Division 2 championship and get as many kids into the state meet as possible," Meuse said.