Natrona County

One look at a Natrona County cross-country practice this year and it's apparent the team loses some presence and senior leadership.

Last year there were some familiar faces; runners that head coach Becky Sondag knew what to expect from and knew she could count on to push their teammates.

The Mustangs and Fillies have a small dose of those this year, but for the most part it's about getting up to speed.

"This year is going to be a big year for rebuilding," Sondag said. "Big freshmen contingency."

Those freshmen will need to put their best foot forward as Natrona County and a multitude of other teams begin their cross-country season at the annual Beartrap Invite on Casper Mountain on Friday.

If Sondag did have one premier runner returning it would be junior Avery Potter.

Potter finished 12th at the state meet as a sophomore after finishing fifth as a freshman. She was a constant presence near the top last season, including an eighth-place finish at the opening Beartrap Invite.

Potter suffered from shin splints during soccer season, which limited her output for the Fillies. It also limited her workouts over the summer, but her coach knows she'll be ready to go.

"She is a fierce competitor," Sondag said. "She is a smart racer. Even as a freshman she showed uncanny ability to get the most out of her body. She tends to hold back at the beginning and hunt people down."

In order to improve on her abilities, Potter may be forced to run alongside the boys throughout the season.

However, there is also Madyson Willis, who finished eighth at regionals and 26th at state in her freshman campaign.

Both will be pushed through the year by the constant competition across town at Kelly Walsh. The Trojans retain three of their top five finishers from state last year and showed improvement throughout the season.

The Kelly Walsh girls had so much parity that no runner stood out. Michaela Gromer, who played volleyball in her freshman and sophomore years, was the Trojans' top runner at state last year as a junior.

Placing less than a second behind Gromer at the title meet was Nya Farnsworth, who returns for her sophomore season.

"Wyoming in general in the last few years is generating some of the best athletes in the Rocky Mountain region," Sondag said. "It’s remarkable for such a small state to have such an impact."

On the boys side, both Casper schools will be in the rebuilding phase.

The Kelly Walsh boys lost their four top runners to graduation, while the Mustangs will be without star runner Garrett Condelario.

However, the Natrona County boys may be able to pull a few surprises with the return of Brennan Hagar and the emergence of sophomore Mason Henry, who has surprised in practice.

Sondag looks toward those two to help their inexperienced teammates throughout the fall.

"So much of leading, especially in distance running, is being a disciplined runner," she said, "put in the miles and put in the time. You have to be willing to work hard if you want to be a leader."

Those runners will be tested right away at Friday's Beartrap Invite. The annual race on top of Casper Mountain has been an enjoyable start to the season as runners from across the state are thrown into a 5K at altitude immediately.

There's a lot of excitement with having so many new faces at Natrona County, but with that has come the tempered goals.

"Since they are so young, we don’t have really any expectations except get our feet wet," Sondag said. "This is the starting point and we'll grow from there."

Follow sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @Brady_CST

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Brady Oltmans reports on high school and local sports. He joined the Star-Tribune in July 2016 after covering prep sports and college soccer in Nebraska. He also contributes to University of Wyoming sports coverage. He and his dog live in Casper.

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