MARQUETTE - When the Northern Michigan University women's cross country team meets rival Michigan Tech on Friday, the Wildcats will have a familiar look.
The Wildcats return eight of its top 10 runners from last season, returns a veteran from injury and adds a pair of standout high school cross country runners originally recruited to ski at Northern.
It all leaves head cross country coach and current interim track and field coach Jenny Ryan with plenty of optimism as she continues to grow the NMU cross country program.
"I have eight of my top 10 returning, which is really exciting, and a lot of new recruits that are fast and great," Ryan said.
"We did a time trial this last Saturday and we had eight women within six seconds of each other. Only five seconds back were another four or five."
Sophomore Larissa Halonen of Delano, Minn., is the Wildcats' top returning runner from a year ago, coming off an all-region season as a freshman. She placed 21st at the NCAA Division II regionals and 25th at the GLIAC Championships.
Ryan said a solid summer of training for Halonen should help her climb even higher in the rankings this season, not only in the GLIAC, but regionally.
"Larissa trained well over the summer, so she's going to take another step up," Ryan said. "I expect that again, she'll be all-region and higher up overall in the GLIAC and region."
Halonen will be joined by junior captain Mandy Dye of downstate Delton, who took 41st in the regional and 40th in the conference championships.
Senior Rita Woitas of Minnesota Lake, Minn., who fell during the rainy GLIAC Championships and injured her ankle, will serve as the Wildcats' other captain alongside Dye.
Sophomores Chelsea Farquhar of Lansing and Katie Granquist of Powers both posted top 50 finishes in the GLIAC Championship meet at Ferris State.
Granquist, who won three U.P. titles at North Central High School, also posted a top-50 finish at the NCAA regional.
Ryan said Dye, Granquist, Woitas and Farquhar - four of the top runners in the time trial along with Halonen - will challenge for all-region honors, as well.
"I think all of them have the potential to be all-region, top-25 or top-30 for sure, moving up," Ryan said. "They're fitter than they were last year. They're stronger after another year of training."
Key newcomers include a pair of Nordic skiers - seven of the 26 runners this year are also skiers - in two-time Division I Vermont State High School Cross Country Championships runner-up Mary Kate Cirelli and 2011 Alaskan state champion Megan Edic.
Ryan also brought in All-U.P. runner Alex Bott of Marquette Senior High School.
The Wildcats get junior Mallory Celaya back from injury, though the North Hollywood, Calif., native did go on to earn an NCAA provisional qualifying time in the steeplechase during track season.
"I'm excited to see what they can do, because this group has a ton of potential," Ryan said.
Two key meets during the regular season include the Sept. 8 Midwest Collegiate Opener at Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha, Wis., and the Sept. 22 Northwood Open in Midland.
Both races are the site of post-season meets with Northwood hosting the GLIAC Championships on Oct. 20 and UW-Parkside hosting the NCAA Midwest Regional on Nov. 3.
NMU also competes in the Sept. 29 Roy Griak Invite in St. Paul, Minn., and hosts the U.P. Championships at 4 p.m. on Oct. 12 at the NMU Golf Course.
"The early one in Kenosha is a good chance to see the course, seeing how fast they can run, but that one isn't as critical because it's early in the season," Ryan said.
"The Roy Griak, the top two teams that finished two and three in the country were at the Roy Griak so that one is good to see in the whole country where we stand against some of the top teams in Division II."