THREE BOYS" TEAMS TO WATCH
Baylor: The Red Raiders have their entire team coming back from the 2013 season.
Coahulla Creek: The Colts have six of their top seven runners from last year returning.
Ooltewah: The Owls return five of their top seven from a team that qualified for the Class AAA state meet.
BOYS' RUNNERS TO WATCH
Garrett Flores, Ooltewah: He had eight top-10 finishes in 2013, including a third place in the Region 3-AAA meet that helped the Owls advance to the state meet.
Jackson Goodwin, Baylor: Goodwin won two meets in the Chattanooga Cross Country League in 2013 and earned Division II-AA all-state honors.
Reed Oscar, McCallie: Oscar had a pair of top-10 finishes on a Blue Tornado team that won the Division II-AA championship, and he will be a leader in 2014.
THREE GIRLS' TEAMS TO WATCH
Heritage: The Lady Generals have three runners returning who were Best of Preps in 2013, and six of their top seven from the Georgia Region 7-AAAA champions.
Home School: The home-schooled team has six of its top eight returning from the National Association for Christian Athletics champions.
Signal Mountain: The Lady Eagles return five of their top seven from the reigning Class A/AA state champions.
GIRLS' RUNNERS TO WATCH
Grace Carlson, Baylor: The junior finished no worse than eighth in any of her seven meets in 2013, with six top-five finishes.
Kathryn Vradenburgh, Home School: Vradenburgh competed in six races as an eighth-grader, finishing in the top 10 in five and the top five in four.
Mallory Young, Signal Mountain: Young was the CCCL girls' runner of the year in 2013, and her second-place finish in the state meet helped the Lady Eagles win as a team.
Even with a limited cross country background, new Ooltewah coach Brian Hitchcox knows talent when he sees it.
So it didn't take long after laying eyes on Garrett Flores to know he had inherited a gem.
"I know enough to know that Garrett Flores was the real deal," Hitchcock said.
Flores will be one of five seniors trying to help the Owls compete for yet another spot in the Class AAA state meet this season. He was one of the area's top runners a year ago, earning first-team Best of Preps honors and placing third in the Region 3-AAA meet.
He's back stronger for his final campaign, despite a knee injury during the summer that slowed his training.
"I'm definitely excited about this season," Flores said. "We have a good, tight-knit group of guys, and we feel we can compete in the region.
"Most of the guys I've been competing against have graduated, and I think this season I'll be in a tight competition for the top spot in the area."
Flores spent the first three years of his Ooltewah career under the leadership of Jason Hamrick, who resigned on Feb. 27. He followed a successful cross country season with a solid spring, crediting track head coach Angela Warren for "pushing him further" than he thought he could go.
Hitchcox, also Ooltewah's baseball coach, recently took charge of the runners and has been mixing up preseason training with tempo days, speed days, long-distance days and some days to heal. It's a fairly typical process for most programs, but the preseason is almost over, and Hitchcox sees a different focus in his team -- and especially Flores.
"He's very focused," Hitchcox said. "He's been around a lot of good athletes, he's talented and he sees how close his goals are and how close he is to achieving something special. I taught him [in class] as a freshman, and his focus and maturity level weren't what they are now.
"He's motivated to be one of the best in the area."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.