CALUMET - Calumet cross country coach Arnie Kinnunen thinks his job will be relatively easy this year.
His girl's team is loaded with talent. The boys team is improving rapidly. He has seniors he can rely on and freshmen he can mold.
And there is motivation a plenty.
After winning the U.P. girls Division I cross country titles in 2009 and 2010, Calumet fell back a step last season despite returning most of the varsity lineup.
Injuries across the board hurt the team's chances, particularly when Julia Lean picked up a stress fracture midway through the season and had to be shelved the rest of the way.
"We were plagued with injuries last year, one of our No. 1 runners, Julia Lean, had a stress fracture in her foot in the middle of the season and she was out for the rest of the year," Kinnunen said. "We were still strong without her, but with her we would have been really tough to beat."
Now a senior, Lean and fellow fourth-year Tara Kiilunen - who has won three straight U.P. titles and has never lost a race in her career - will want to go back out on top.
"I think it was disheartening, but it was also a learning experience," Kinnunen said. "I have been coaching some of these girls for five years now and it is a tough group of girls. It is disheartening at times to lose races but it is good for us. It helps us build character and makes us work harder."
Aiding the team's chances will be an infusion of talent from the freshman class.
Leah Kiilunen, Tara's sister, joins the squad along with Abbey Helppi and Chloe Antilla, three new runners Kinnunen is extremely excited about.
So much so, he won't even speculate on what seven runners with comprise the varsity team by the first meet.
"We are not going to unleash the beast until somewhere in mid-to-late-August," Kinnunen said. "Really anything can happen. I have some new kids here that have some amazing potential. I can't even tell you who is going to be No. 1 and who is going to be No. 7. For the girls team it is going to be pretty cutthroat.
"It is impossible to put together a top seven right now."
Kinnunen is so giddy about the potential of his team, he declined to even state what would appear to be obvious to an outsider - that the undefeated Tara Kiilunen would at least be the team's top runner.
"Honestly, I can't," Kinnunen said. "I have some girls that I think will make it tough to say who is going to be No. 1 and who is going to be No. 7. But I have a group of girls who are freshmen this year who are going to be very tough. One of them, is Tara's younger sister Leah. And Abbey Helppi and Chloe Antilla as freshman look good too. It is extremely exciting."
Still, Kinnunen seized the opportunity to gush about Tara's place on the team as a leader.
"Her mental toughness is amazing, she has a strong work ethic and just a powerful attitude that is so dedicated," Kinnunen said. "Sometimes, I think it is intimidating for the rest of the school that our top runners are so good. I have kids who don't join the team because they don't want to train with the top pack. But when you are apart of this team, it definitely helps having her in practice."
And while the girl's team is expected to contend for a U.P. Championship this year, Kinnunen believes the boy's team may surprise some fans as well.
"I think the success that the girls have had has helped developed the boys program," Kinnunen said. "We have a crew of boys out here this year that I think will step up and be right up there with the rest of the teams.
"The boys are looking really tough this year."