PUNXSUTAWNEY — The Punxsutawney Lady Chucks girls' cross country team is prepared for another important season after missing its third consecutive District 9 championship.
The Bradford Lady Owls had just the slightest edge over Punxsy to secure the district title.
But the Lady Chucks head coach George Wehrle has high hopes for the future.
"My overall impression of this year's team so far is that it is easily one of the most talent teams we've had," Wehrle said. "If the work ethic and desire are there, they should do quite well."
Wehrle's 2010 team had a very successful season, losing only two dual meets and winning eight. His only disappointment was the tie-breaker loss in districts to Bradford.
Although Wehrle has high expectations for his squad this season, he will have to worry about losing three seniors, two of whom were a very important presence on the team.
Milea Schall was a two-time district champion who committed to the Clarion cross country team to continue her running career after graduation.
Schall also holds the Punxsutawney school record in the 3200 meter run.
Shannon Byerly is another from last year's team who will be running at the collegiate level at Slippery Rock University. Bylerly placed fourth at the district cross country meet last season.
"Losing Shannon and Milea, along with Bethany Beatty (the third graduation loss), will be a challenge for the team to overcome," Wehrle said. "But we were fortunate to pick up some talented freshman that seem to be capable of running with our varsity seven right now."
Punxsy does have two seniors this year, Kirsten Dean and Heidi Rodgers, to help fill that leadership void.
"Kirsten was one of our best runners as a freshman and sophomore and really got injured during a meet last fall, and I think she is just now starting to look like her old self," Wehrle said. "She had an excellent summer of running, and I like our chances of being successful a whole lot more now that she's back and able to run."
Wehrle also had positive things to say about Rodgers, who he hopes will bring experience to the team this season.
"Heidi is a very capable runner in her own right, dependable and consistent," he said. "She will be pushing for one of the top seven varsity spots throughout the season and has looked strong so far in practice."
The Lady Chucks will be a relatively young team this season, with five freshman and six sophomores, two of whom are first-year runners for the team.
But Wehrle said all of his freshman have had running experience at the middle school level, so he did not seem worried.
"I look for all of them to contribute in a big way this season," he said. "Ideally you don't want to rely on freshman to do too much because they need time to grow as runners, but they are the best overall class of incoming runners in my nine years of coaching the girls' team."
Of the six sophomores, Wehrle pointed to Juliann Boddorf, who was a state qualifier last year, and Tamera Anthony, a previous district team member, to be essential to the team.
"Our sophomore group is a nice mix of experienced and beginning runners, but from what I've seen so far, they all will be successful this season," Wehrle said. "Juliann and Tamera are for sure in our top seven right now."
Wehrle's junior class consists of just one runner: Alexis Young, who he said has been one of the "best runners in the district" during her first two years with the team.
She was a cross country runner-up in districts last year, and she placed second in the 1600 at the track and field district championships.
"She had her best summer of training yet," Wehrle said. "I look for her to challenge for a district championship this year. She is running very well right now and should only get better."
As far as the team overall, Wehrle said he has three very specific goals.
He said his first goal will have to do with working as not just an individual but also as a team.
"First, I would like everyone on the team to feel as if they matter, that they are contributing something that no one else can," he said. "Not everyone can be a terrific runner, but they can all be terrific teammates."
Wehrle said his second goal was to make sure the sport stays fun; he said he wants running to be something the girls do for their entire lives.
His third goal involves individual goals and helping every girl succeed.
"Lastly, I would like to help each and every runner achieve her performance goals through sensible, challenging training," Wehrle said. "If these three things happen in 2011, I will consider the season a success."
The girls' cross country team will kick off its season at the Gateway Invitational Saturday.
The Lady Chucks will then be hosted by Elk County Catholic for their first dual meet.
Their first home meet will be Sept. 13 against DuBois and Kane.
Wehrle said he is focused on Bradford this season as he think it will be the Lady Chucks' toughest opponent.
"Our biggest competition in District 9 during my time as head girls' cross country coach has been Bradford, and I expect them to be quite strong again this year," Wehrle said. "We have been runner-up to them at districts six of the past eight years.
"Until I see something exceptional from Clearfield or DuBois, it's probably between Bradford and Punxsy for the district team title and the automatic team trip to states."