The Harper College men's cross country team will toe the starting line for Friday afternoon's Harper Invite with a big target on its back -- as befits an NJCAA Division III defending national champion.
"I think we are young but talented," said Harper coach Jim Macnider, who guided the Hawks to the program's first national title in his first season with the team after wrapping up a storied prep coaching career at Schaumburg High School.
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This year's Hawks will be paced by sophomores Troy Cunningham (Conant) and Zach Gates (Palatine).
"Those are two good building blocks," Macnider said. "They have to be leaders."
The Hawks lost a talented trio to graduation in top runner and All-American Pablo Ramirez (Conant), Ryan Wojdyla (Palatine) and Cisco Soto (Lake Zurich).
Ramirez fnished fourth (26:02) at the NJCAA national meet, and Wojdyla (Palatine) was a two-time All-American.
Replacing that kind of talent isn't easy.
"We don't have a Pablo yet," Macnider said.
Instead, Macnider hopes depth can make a difference. He points out that runners 5 through 7 are better this season than last.
"We picked up five pretty good prospects" Macnider said of his incoming class, which includes Josh Campos (Prospect), Johan Lino (Streamwood), Rick Modlin (Wheeling) and Vince Greco.
"In practice they are working hard," Macnider said. "(The freshmen) need to develop though the season. If we put everybody in the top 20-25, we are going to hard to beat."
The Hawks have opted to skip their usual trip to the University of Minnesota in early September, instead opting for an appearance in the Bradley Classic in Peoria.
Other key dates include a Sept. 28 invitational at College of DuPage, and the Illinois Intercollegiate in Normal, Sept. 14-15.
Despite those changes and a mostly new cast, the focus remains the same for Macnider and the Hawks.
"Our goal is to win the regional meet," he said, "and the national meet".