Each time that Easton's Colin Abert competed in the PIAA Cross Country Championships the previous three years, the number "2" has appeared in his placing.
Abert finished 125th as a freshman. He placed 12th as a sophomore. He finished 2nd as a junior.
This fall, as a senior, Abert is aiming to make certain there is no number "2" in his placing.
"I'd like to win states," the Red Rovers distance star said of his No. 1 goal for the upcoming high school cross country season.
Before District 11's elite trek to the Parkview Country Club course in Hershey for the state championships in early November, there are many meets to be run in the new Eastern Pennsylvania Conference and in the new-look Colonial League.
Abert is expected to dominate, once again, against conference and district competition. Last year, he won the District 11 3A meet by 49 seconds ahead of Freedom's Ben Ziegler.
So, can anyone catch Abert?
"Good question," Freedom coach Bob Thear said. "Probably not. I'm going to say no unless he comes back to the pack and that's not very likely. Colin's a contender, if not the favorite, to win a state title."
A talented and dedicated runner, Abert said he started his summer workout program several weeks later this year in hopes he'd be peaking for the postseason.
"I've definitely increased my miles," said Abert, who was five seconds behind Tony Russell of West Chester Henderson in the state championship meet. Russell, the 3A state champ in 15:49, is now a freshman at Penn State.
"I'd like to break the 15-minute mark sometime this season, too. I'm just really excited for the season to start."
Another reason Abert is excited for the season — his Red Rovers should contend with Freedom and Parkland for the first EPC title. (There will be no regular-season team champion. The team champion will be crowned at the conference meet.)
Kevin Lapsansky, a junior, could emerge as the top competition for Abert and will be a strong No. 2 runner for coach Bobbi-Jo Powell's Easton squad. Senior Greg Grunwald, junior Greg Sherman and sophomore Logan Koch are other key returnees.
Abert is also excited to see how promising freshman Sean Guydish fares at the varsity level.
"Our team has a chance to be pretty good," Abert said.
The favorite, though, to win a third straight conference title is Freedom.
The Patriots won the last two Lehigh Valley Conference crowns and they return six of their top seven runners. Ziegler leads the Freedom charge, with seniors Jason Lopez and Shane Smith, juniors Dan Quigley and Will Alpaugh, and sophomore Isaac Gross rounding out the top seven.
"I think they're interchangeable parts, really," Thear said. "We have four who can be our No. 1 on any given day.
"Since there isn't a dual meet champion anymore, we're basically using the regular season as training to get prepared for the championship meet."
Parkland, which finished second to Freedom at the District 11 meet last year, is a third contender for the EPC title.
The "Big Four" for coach Loretta Dodson's Trojans are senior Grant Newman, juniors Daniel Kyvelos and Justin Berger, and sophomore Michael Geiger.
"I'd say Parkland and Easton are the top threats," Thear said. "I'll pick Liberty as a little bit of a darkhorse, though. They might surprise some people."
Individually, the talent pool in the EPC is deep this season.
The top eight finishers in last year's District 11 Class 3A championships were underclassmen and all eight are returnees. Abert, Ziegler and Whitehall's Gabe Lamm were the top three finishers — and all are seniors this year. Lapsansky finished fourth, Quigley was fifth, Liberty's Alex Fitch was sixth, Newman placed seventh and Lopez finished eighth.
Of course, six of the schools from the former Mountain Valley Conference are also part of the EPC.
While none of the six — East Stroudsburg North and South, Pocono Mountain East and West, Pleasant Valley and Stroudsburg — are challengers for a conference title, there are several runners to watch. Pleasant Valley sophomore Seth Slavin placed 20th at the district meet last year and Stroudsburg senior Benjamin Solak finished 24th.
The EPC schedule commences today with all 18 teams in action at four sites.
The new-look Colonial League lost one of its previous 14 schools (Notre Dame of East Stroudsburg) and is now a 13-team league for cross country.
Bangor is the three-time Colonial League champion and coach Andy Hartzell's Slaters enter the season on a 77-meet winning streak. The top returnees are seniors Charlie Sell and Brandon Tocket — both qualifiers for last year's state meet.
The challengers to Bangor figure to be Northwestern, Notre Dame-Green Pond and Wilson.
Coach Chris Stitzel's Tigers welcome back the senior trio of Brayden Heller, Alec Consuelos and Josh Kromer.
Notre Dame will be led by senior Michael Koons and junior Devon Fogel. Wilson's top runner is junior Joe Espinal, who expects to battle with Salisbury senior Kyle Gonoude for the title of top runner in the Colonial League.
Gonoude is the defending league and 2A district champion. He finished seventh among Class 2A runners at last year's state championships.
Michael Blouse is a freelance writer.