The Tewksbury High boys cross country team didn't have a first place finisher in any of its nine dual meets last year, and coach Peter Molloy doesn't expect that to change much this fall.
But with his four top runners returning from last season, Molloy does expect to see a big improvement over last year's 1-8 record, if the team's early training runs are any indication.
"This is the best start we've had in several years," said Molloy, whose runners began training earlier this week. "We've been able to do eight miles right out of the gate from day one, because these kids have been working their butts off all summer."
The team did not have a clear cut No. 1 runner last year, as and alternated as Tewksbury's top finisher from meet-to-meet, and stole the top spot one week.
"All three of those guys have the potential to be our top runner in any given meet," Molloy said. "And Cory Thomas should challenge to be No. 1, too. I don't think we're going to see the effect of not having a big time front runner in the dual meets, because in the dual meets it's all about how many more kids you can get across the finish line before the other team does. We should have a lot of depth this year."
Foley and Horahan, both seniors, will captain the team this fall along with seniors Tim Conklin and Brendan Blair. Amaral, who was one of Tewksbury's top distance runners in outdoor track last spring, will be a junior, as will Thomas.
But while Molloy is cautiously optimistic about his team's chances this fall, he would not predict a Merrimack Valley Conference Division 2 title for his team.
"It's tough to say," Molloy said. "Our guys have improved, but so has their competition. I think we've at least kept par with the competition, which is good."
Defending Division 1 state champion Lowell returns a strong core of runners, and Methuen looks to be strong again this fall, according to Molloy. But amongst MVC Division 2 schools, Tewksbury should be in the hunt.
"I think we have an opportunity to be very competitive among the (Division 2) schools," Molloy said. "We lost to Haverhill by four or five points last year and we lost to Billerica by two. I see the tables kind of turning for us this year. I think we could come out on top in those meets."
The team will have to find replacements for three graduating seniors, Nick Parsons, Brian Gugger and Craig Tino. But a trio of sophomores should help out. Matt Corriveau and twin brothers Anthony and Joey Darrigo showed great promise as freshmen last year, according to Molloy. And first-year runner Jamal Choudhary, a junior, should also contribute.
"I don't see us breaking into the top two or three (in the league)," Molloy said. "But I think we'll be a lot more competitive than last year."
REBUILDING YEAR FOR GIRLS TEAM
The Tewksbury High girls team will be searching for a new identity this year, as one of the most successful cross country runners in school history, has graduated and moved on to the University of Rhode Island.
"Ashley has been the face of our program for the last three or four years," Molloy said. "It's going to be different without her. She's been our number one runner for four straight years, she's been our MVP, she's won coaches awards, most improved, she's been everything. Losing her is going to be tough. It'll be interesting to see how the team dynamic works out without her."
Making matters worse is the fact that last year's , has informed Molloy that she will not be running as a senior. Patriarca burst onto the MVC cross country scene last fall and led the team to a 6-4 record, then went on to capture first place at both the MVC championships and the Division 2 state championships.
But a variety of ongoing health concerns have sidelined Patriarca since last winter, and the TMHS senior, who is ranked No.1 in her class, has decided to concentrate on her studies this year.
That leaves senior captain Christina Dick as the team's top returner. Dick was Tewksbury's top performer in both the mile (5:39.61) and the two mile run (12:13.58) last winter.
"Christina is going to have to step up and be the No. 1," Molloy said. "It'll be a good challenge for her."
Dick will co-captain the team along with senior Hannah Kuegler. Two juniors, Sam McGouldrick and Sarah Parker, also return with varsity experience.
Molloy is also counting on three sophomores, Bridget Blair, Allison Giles and Rachel McCabe, to contribute to the team's scoring efforts.
"None of those three have ever run cross country before but I expect all three of them to make an immediate impact on the varsity," Molloy said.
But with two big holes to fill and a shortage of experience, Molloy does not expect his team to finish at the top of the standings this fall.
"I'm hoping that we can be competitive in the MVC's Division 2," he said. "I expect Andover to be very strong, but we should be able to compete with Methuen, Lawrence and Notre Dame.
"We'll just try to keep them healthy and keep 'em happy and hope they improve. That's all you can really ask for."