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East Butler cross country is planning on taking a larger contingent to Kearney this year when the opening gun sounds for the state cross country meet in late October.

The boys failed to send any runners last year while the girls lone representative was a less than healthy Amanda Aerts. Aerts was 23rd, suffered yet another unlucky and seemingly freak injury in the springtime and missed all of the track season.

Still, she's been there and done that in Kearney with a 10th-place medal as a sophomore and seventh-place showing as a freshman. The last time the boys joined the festivities was in 2016 when Amanda's older brother Jarod led the Tigers to 12th with on a 39th place run.

"I think we're going to have a good season. I think our boys are going to be more competitive than we have been the last few years. We've got enough kids coming back with experience," coach Dale Nielsen said. "On the girls side, I think Amanda Aerts is going to be fairly healthy, probably not right away, but I would say by mid season she should be pretty much fully recovered from her knee injury suffered in the spring. That should provide us some leadership.

"If we can get a fourth and fifth runner closer to the top three, I think we'll have a decent team."

Decent in terms of challenging for state? Nielsen said the girls could have a shot after a near miss in 2018. The boys will depend more on which other teams are assigned in the district. Regardless of what happens on that particular day, Nielsen said the boys will be more competitive.

Both squads look to have right around 15 runners competing for varsity spots. Bringing Aerts back into the fold should make that competition more intense on both sides. Having an accomplished runner around seems to always force a higher level of commitment from everyone, whether that runner is a boy or a girl.

"It adds something. She's a very dedicated runner, and it adds kind of a gauge for everybody else to tell how they're doing and what they should be doing. Because she always gives 100 percent and kind of pulls everyone along with her," Nielsen said. "I think it's a big deal to have her healthy."

Her leadership is one of a few personalities among the senior group Nielsen said can speak up, motivate and hold everyone accountable.

"Right now, we've got three senior girls and then four or five more girls that could be our fourth and fifth runners," he said. "On the boys side, I think there's about five guys that look like our top runners at this point.

"I don't know that we're looking at winning meets on the boys side, but we could be a middle-of-the-pack kind of group. That would be an improvement over the last couple of years."

Nate Tenopir is the sports editor for The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at DVDsports@lee.net.

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