Gibsonburg's boys cross country team was a regional qualifier for five straight years until that streak was broken in 2008.
"I think they're more motivated to get there this year," veteran coach Beth Kohler said. "We graduated five of our top seven from the (2007) team, so we definitely thought last year would be a learning experience.
"This year, our top four have come in ready to run. I have a lot of young runners this year. This is the biggest team I've ever had (in 22 years). We have 19 boys, and for the younger runners it's been a gradual thing."
The Golden Bears will try to win their first Suburban Lakes League title in several years when the league meet comes around Oct. 17. The Bears were third last season and took fourth in 2007, the same year they won the Division III district title.
This year's squad has been a work in progress, but Kohler said the team looks like it could make a strong push in the postseason. The only trophy Gibsonburg has won this season has been a second-place finish at the Norm Bray Invitational at Walsh Park in Fremont.
"We have finished in the top four or top six in almost every invitational except the Tiffin Carnival," Kohler said. "We had a horrible day there."
The Bears' top runner is senior co-captain Elias Dandar. The four-year letterman qualified for his first state meet last season, placing 66th in 17:07.
"He's hoping to get there again this year and do better," Kohler said. "Last week, he ran his PR (16:37) at Maumee Bay State Park. His previous best was 16:46 this season. He has a lot of natural talent, but especially this year he has been dedicated to putting in the base mileage, the long-distance runs.
"Getting to state last year really motivated him. Now he wants to make his mark there and not just get there. He's decided he needs to step up and be a good leader."
Gibsonburg's No. 2 runner has varied this season, between senior co-captain Kendall Bates and juniors Josh Tornow and Jordan Rosenberger. Kohler said the competition for the No. 2 spot has been "very good" for the team.
"They work together really well," she said. "Of course, they really want to beat each other but they're happy for each other. They motivate each other during races and they pull for one another."
Kohler said Bates, a second-year runner, has been a pleasant surprise.
"He was injured most of his sophomore year," the coach said. "He has brought his time down (17:55). Last year he was at 18:35 for his PR. He's really stepped up. He had a good spring in track, running the half mile. Last year he was out for the team and learning. This year he's decided he's going to make a mark on the team."
Rosenberger also ran track last spring, which helped him improve his strengths and the power in his stride, according to Kohler.
"He's improved into a very good runner," she said. "He's improved from an 18:20 to a 17:42 so far this year. Josh Tornow has been strugging with illness a little bit. He's had this cold thing going on, but he's pushing through and running well for us. I expect good things from him once he gets 100 percent."
The Bears have also gotten stronger performances from sophomore Holden Sondergeld and freshman Jacob Merryfield.
"Holden has made a huge improvement," Kohler said. "He's generally our fifth runner and sometimes our sixth or seventh. He's gone from a 19:24 to an 18:10, so he's made the biggest improvement of all of them.
"Jacob has been able to work his way into the top five in most of our races, and that's been a strong top five. His best so far has been 18:20 at the Lakota Invitational."
Gibsonburg's postseason begins with the district meet Oct. 24 at Bettsville. There will be two Division III races, with the top four teams advancing to the Tiffin regional.
To be successful, Kohler said the Bears "need to close the gap between where Elias finishes and where our 2-3-4 runners finish."
"Hopefully, someone will step it up," Kohler said. "They run nicely as a pack, but that pack's got to move up - at least two in that pack have to move up with Elias."