After a strong end to the season last year, Liberty's Nick Tilson knew he'd be on opposing teams' watch lists at the start of his junior campaign.
In 2014, the Lions runner finished third at the county championship meet, third at the MVAL championship meet, fifth at regionals, and second in the Class 2A title race.
Sometimes, it can take runners until their final year to reach their potential on the course. But, after the county graduated a majority of its talent, Tilson may get an opportunity to show just how good he can be as he enters junior season.
"It kind of puts a target on my back a little bit," said Tilson, Liberty's top returner in 2015. "But it also gives me a little motivation to make sure no one beats me, [to] kind of push myself even more."
At last year's county championship race at McDaniel College, seven of the top 10 finishers were seniors. In a group that includes Chad Sussman, Tilson's former Lions teammate and reigning Times Runner of the Year, as well as top performers Matthew Kane (Century), Jesse Parsons (Westminster), Owen Thomas (Century), Malcolm Rogers (South Carroll) and Brian Edwards (Francis Scott Key), the door is open to become Carroll's next rising star.
Aside from Tilson, who Liberty co-coach Dan Jones said should have another standout season, those in the program are excited about newcomer Daniel Saxon. Though the freshman has only been part of the Lions program for a few weeks, his times during practices have impressed both Jones and co-coach Pete Lester.
Standing in the way are Westminster's Brad and Brandon Arbaugh, a senior and a sophomore, respectively. Owls co-coach Ryan Dulaney said both runners should finish with consistency this season, just as they did last year. Brad Arbaugh was fifth overall at counties last year, while Brandon was 11th.
There's also South Carroll's Brian Cave, who finished 10th overall at counties as a junior in 2014.
Tilson said he learned a lot from Sussman through the two years they worked together. He's hoping that some of the knowledge his former teammate passed on can help this season.
"On training runs, he would tell me to get up with him and run with him," Tilson said. "Pretty much if you just do what he does on a course, you end up running a pretty good race. [Run] how he runs. He's a smart runner."
With mostly yet-to-be-proven runners in this year's cross country pack, Carroll County could be in for a shakeup. The same can be said for team competition.
Westminster was second to the Lions at counties last year, followed by Century, South Carroll and Winters Mill. That large turnover has some thinking that 2015 has the potential to be anyone's for the taking.
Said Westminster co-coach Ryan DuLaney, "I think this is the most open a county championship has looked in quite some time."