For the past few years, the LaFayette Ramblers have been knocking on the door to get into the top four in Region 6-AAAA and get back to the state championships.
This season, they just might have the team capable of taking that final step.
Head coach Chris O'Neil said his team's overall numbers are down a little from last year, but added that it might be a case of quality over quantity in 2018.
"We did lose a lot of really good seniors, but we have a lot of good young talent returning and some good young talent coming up from the middle school," he said. 'It's going to be close, but I think we might be able to scratch the top four this year and make state."
O'Neil went into the new season with four seniors in Trey Henderson, R.J. Sievers, Tony Parton and William Sainthill, most of whom have been in the LaFayette program for at least three years, and in some cases, four. Sainthill, he added, clocked in times this preseason that were on par with or even better than the times he put up as a freshman, when he was among the Ramblers' top varsity runners.
Behind them are some other returning starters, who were among the fastest on the team in 2017.
Junior Devin Henderson was consistently near the top of the LaFayette lineup all of last year and finished with the fastest of the Ramblers' times at the region meet. He improved by a full two minutes from his opening meet to the region meet, which was an 18:28. He finished 11th that day and averaged 19:13 for the season to earn Catoosa-Walker County Cross Country Dream Team first team honors.
Right there with him is sophomore Josh Perea, who came on strong as a freshman and was the Ramblers' overall average leader (18:54) a year ago. He ran a season-best 18:25 at Baylor and placed 16th at the region meet (18:38). He joined Henderson on the Dream Team first team.
"He's put in a ton of miles over this summer and I'm really interested to see how his year shakes out," O'Neil added.
Two more returners for LaFayette are junior Andrew Long and sophomore Steven Sanford, both honorable mention picks a year ago.
"I'm really looking for Steven to take a step up this year as well as Andrew, who really started improving towards the tail end of last season," O'Neil said. "I'm anxious to see what he does as well."
The coach added that he has a lot of first-year runners, but said that he wasn't sure yet how they would all pan out.
“There's a lot of potential there though," he continued. "We just have to see who rises to the top."
Like many schools in the area, LaFayette will at least start out the season with a small girls' team. However, the Lady Ramblers do have a cornerstone to build around in junior Hannah Dearing, who led LaFayette all of last season in average time (25:28). Dearing ran a season-best 24:43 at Baylor and clocked in at 25:36 in the region meet.
They will also bring back junior Caitlyn Watson, whom O'Neil says has improved from being a four or five last year to vying for one of the top two positions this year. Junior Hope McClure is another holdover from last year who is looking to better her times from a season ago.
"We don't have many newcomers on the girls' side, so it's kind of wide open," he added. "We just need runners are willing to put in the time."
"The key to this season is having everybody that was on the team last year to improve on those times," he said. "We also need a couple of darkhorses to show up when it comes time for the region meet. If we do that, and everybody runs hard this year, we'll have a shot at going to state."