For the Hermiston boys’ cross country team, no starting spot is safe.

As the reigning Class 5A state champions, the Bulldogs are once again loaded with talent — they return four of 2010’s top-10 runners — and will except nothing but another team title.

Determining those runners, however, is a season-long process.

While the top seven runners on the team, based on a pre-race time trial, will run in the team’s first meet, the Brooks XC Fest at Sandstone Middle School, Puzey said he’s got a stable of harriers this season that will push for varsity meet time.

“The guys who earn a spot know they can’t get too complacent,” Puzey said. “Their spot will be under threat every week.”

Returning to this year’s team is last year’s surprise third-place state finisher Javier Velasco, along with Eduardo Juarez (10th at 5A meet), Jose Macias, Kain Garcia and Alejandro Cisneros.

Macias and Cisneros burst on to the scene last season as freshmen and made an impact immediately, but Puzey said Macias has made an extra jump from his performance during the track season last spring.

“He placed eighth in the 3,000 and beat Summit’s Travis Neuman at the state track meet,” Puzey said. Neuman was the second-place finisher in the 5A cross country meet last season. “He is a lot more confident now, and definitely capable.”

Puzey said that he expects Nathan Sanders and Miguel Meteo, along with Garcia and Macias, to be in the mix of starting varsity spots week-in and week-out.

“We’re going to depend heavily on those guys this season,” Puzey said.

Gone from last year’s title-winning squad are Juan Delgado and Andrew Valdez, but from the sounds of it, Puzey won’t have much trouble filling the void left by the duo.

With all this talent coming back and putting on the purple-striped varsity uniforms for the Bulldogs, Puzey said this could be the year the school record at 5,000 meters goes down.

Aaron Lindner sped to a time of 15 minutes, 17 seconds in 1996 to set the school mark.

But the team sees something else not yet accomplished by any Hermiston runner, an individual state champion. Puzey said he thinks his team could put someone at the top of the state podium for the first time.

“This is the first time we’ve been in the position,” Puzey said of coming off the state title and having so many top runners return. “We figure that if we have 40 percent of the top guys in the state, the odds are in our favor to put a guy at the top this year. The guys see how realistic it is.”

Hermiston beat Franklin in the team race last season at the state meet. The Bulldogs scored 69 points and the Quakers scored 86 based on the finishes from the teams’ five best runners. The two schools will have a rematch, but it won’t have to wait for the 2011 state meet. It will be in the first meet of the season, the Brooks XC Fest at Sandstone Middle School.

“It is exciting,” Puzey said of Franklin coming out to the meet. “We are happy they accepted our invitation, and consider it a compliment that they would travel all the way to come to our race.”

The Quakers graduated last year’s individual champ Ian Burgess, but return seventh-place finisher Jackson Baker and 19th-place finisher Dane Hilts to lead a formidable team that undoubtedly has redemption on its mind.

Puzey wants the season-opening event to be a meet where his team “shakes the cobwebs out” a bit and isn’t putting a ton of emphasis on the meet when it comes to times, but since they’ll more than likely see the Quakers later on in the year, he wouldn’t mind dishing out an old-fashioned beating to prove a point and let it be known teams need to go through the purple and gold to have a shot at the title.

“Anytime you race a potential postseason rival, it is important to send a message,” he said.

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