NEW CONCORD -- With five returning letterwinners on both the men's and women's Muskingum University cross country teams, Coach Jacob Gleason has expectations of each making a move up in the Ohio Athletic Conference standings this season.

The men finished eighth in the conference last year defeating Capital University for the third straight year and beating Otterbein for the first time in a long time, while the women were 10th in the conference losing to Capital by just 40 points.

"We return a lot of talent on the men's team including our top runners," Gleason said. "I am expecting big things from them. The men have depth and we have some front runners that can finish in the top 15-20 which helps our team score and could move us up in the conference."

The five returning lettermen for the men are seniors Tyler Smith (Maysville) and Nova Martin along with junior John Derov and sophomores Ryan Dodd and Thomas Tussey.

"Tussey and Smith have been on the cusp of being all-conference performers," Gleason pointed out. "Smith has been close all three years and we gave Baldwin Wallace and Wilmington a real challenge last year. If one or both of these can move into that top 15-20, that will help us with the team score this year."

Other senior candidates include: Nick Kellas, Jeff Sharrat and Robert Alberts (Ridgewood), while other juniors are Broc Wilkins (Sheridan), Tory Kelly (Zanesville) and Nathan Anderson (Ridgewood).

Additional sophomores include Tim Fries, Willie Matt, Nathan Peck and Cody Jordan. This group of upperclassmen are joined by a talented freshman class of Daniel Mullen (Cambridge), Alex Fanta, Brady Groom and Andrew Alexander (West Holmes).

"Peck had a great track season for us last spring," Gleason said. "Mullen just came to school last spring and had a good track season and could challenge for a varsity spot in cross country and the freshman Fanta could also challenge for a varsity spot.

"The men are ahead of the women because I was able to recruit runners that could finish near the front earlier," he added. "I believe we have that now and it is a good opportunity for us to jump into the top five in the conference. We have good senior leadership and the young people behind them are pushing for a spot."

For the Lady Muskies, it has taken more time to recruit those runners who can finish near the top and bring down the team score.

Lincoln Green transferred in last spring and quickly became the Lady Muskies' top distance runner during track season and sophomore Claire Lieburn could also be a challenge to finish in that top 15-20 runners.

"Green may become the front runner we have been looking for," Gleason stated. "She is experienced and a good leader for us. Lieburn could also be another runner that makes a move closer to the top.

"This group has grown," he added, "and I feel good about the freshman class. It has taken some time to recruit a good women's group, but hopefully, now we can get some people in the top 15-20. Our pack is faster and we now have the higher end girls so I expect us to move up in the conference."

Letterwinners returning include juniors Emily Bay (Tri-Valley) and Sarah Rose along with sophomores Tori Clark, Lieburn and Janelle Shaffer.

The other junior candidate is Christine Ohtola and the additional sophomores are Heather Lynch and Jami Durkes, a transfer from Bowling Green. The freshmen recruits besides Green, who is freshman eligible but a sophomore academically, are Heather Daniel, Allison Healey (Barnesville), Denise Labis and Caroline Nagy.

"I am encouraged," Gleason said. "We now have a good core and can build on this. We had some pieces in for track season last spring and hopefully, it will carry over to cross country. Durkes, Healey and Daniel are three new people that could challenge for a starting spot."

The Muskies open Saturday hosting the Muskingum Invitational against Ohio University Eastern starting at 10 a.m. with the start and finish on the soccer field.