Ryan Zunich and his Detroit Lakes girls cross country runners are looking forward for a return to a normal season plus a new section.

"Last year was tough but it was rewarding," Zunich said, referring to last year's season in which the COVID pandemic limited his team to fewer meets and only one postseason meet at sections. "We made the best of it."

Last year during COVID-19, cross country meets were not held on the customary golf course routes. So instead, the Lakers hosted four triangulars on a flat course configured around the high school.

This year, the Laker girls are scheduled to compete in 10 meets. That's not including the Lakers' annual preseason meet that Zurich describes as "the world's largest practice" with 500 to 600 runners from around the state.

"We are still masking on the bus," Zunich said. "It (COVID) has gotten better but we still have to be careful."

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The season opens Tuesday, Aug. 24, with the Make The Lake event in Detroit Lakes.

This fall will also mark the first year Minnesota cross country will expand from two classes to three classes. That means the Lakers will no longer have to compete against bigger schools like Moorhead and Brainerd in its section. The Lakers will compete in the second-largest class (Class 2A) against the likes of Willmar, Alexandria and Rocori.

"You had to be pretty much on top of your game to place in that top 10 when we competed in the top class," Zunich said. "We could never quite break through ... it was almost like a 'Hoosiers' type of thing. If we could get a top five finish in our section this year (Section 8AA), that would be outstanding."

Zunich, beginning his seventh year as head coach, saw last year's team place 12th in the old Section 8 meet. Gone from that team is Katie McConkey, a multiple All-Mid State Conference runner who ran at the varsity level since eighth grade.

"She was our staple and steady Eddie," Zunich said. "She was always kind of our rock in the front. And she helped mentor our younger runners."

The only senior returning on this year's team is McKenna Mallow, who as a golfer for the Lakers' girls golf team placed seventh at state.

"She offers a ton of leadership for this team," Zunich said.

Junior Julia Steffl is expected to be one of the top runners for the Lakers this year.

"She had a great track season," Zunich said. "She will improve by leaps and bounds. My whole junior class will be pretty pivotal for this team."

Other juniors include Lily Baethke, Kira Wolf, Kaitlyn Jorgenson and Maria Foltz.

Zunich said he will also be relying on a number of freshmen, who helped last year's junior high squad to an undefeated season.

Some of those freshmen include: Isla Pender, Sadie Johnson, Karli Skarie, Addyson Flyen, Jessa Hunt, Lilla Kallstrom and Marin Johnson.