By AUSTIN COLBERT

acolbert@dailynews.net

Either age is catching up to Thomas More Prep-Marian cross country coach Matt Dumler, or his runners are just getting faster. Chances are, he's hoping for the latter.

"This is the first year that I've had guys that can beat me. And I'm not saying that to brag, but in the past they've always felt they couldn't beat me. But this year I've had three of them simply outrun me and I couldn't catch them," Dumler admitted.

"So they are starting to develop that mentality that, 'Hey, we can do this and we can be faster than what we think.' The thing we are talking about this year is really our vision. And we define vision as seeing past what we think our best is. So that's really our team motto this year and they are starting to embrace that."

Dumler has high expectations for the TMP boys' team as they open their season Saturday morning at the fourth annual Monarch Invitational, held on TMP's campus. The TMP boys lost only one senior from last year in Austin Dinkel, returning the rest of its key members from their Class 3A state-qualifying team last season.

"It was definitely rewarding, because my sophomore year we kind of thought we had a small chance and we worked really hard for it and didn't make it. But we did last year and it was really cool," said senior Matt Mindrup. "We are stronger than last year for sure, coming into the season. We only lost one senior. I really think we have a really good shot at doing well at state."

Mindrup, who led the TMP boys last season at the Monarch Invitational with a seventh-place finish in 19 minutes, 46 seconds on the 5K course, is one of three seniors, along with Sam Dreiling and Tony Staab, on the Monarchs' varsity team this season. Dumler expects him to be one of the better runners once again, although the top honors will go to junior Andrew Hess, as they did most of last year.

Hess was the Monarchs' top runner at the state meet at Rim Rock near Lawrence, finishing 12th overall with a time of 17:49.12. It was the first state experience in cross country for Hess, and the first for any current TMP runner.

"We all kind of ran together last season and kept getting better and better. Then we ended up making it to state. It was good. It made me realize hard work will pay off," Hess said. "Our guys' team as a whole, I think we are stronger than we were last year. Should be able to do better and go farther."

The remainder of the TMP boys' varsity runners are expected to be juniors Ryan Ruder and Ricky Hockett, sophomore Mark Loftus, and freshman Taylor Teel.

The TMP girls lost their best runner for the second consecutive season. Last year it was current Kansas State University sophomore Heather Ruder, and this year it is reining Monarch Invitational girls' champion Kayla Walker.

This year's top spot is up for grabs, with their lone senior Alyssa Keil one of the front-runners. Despite her senior status, Keil is only in her second season on the team after playing volleyball her first two years at TMP. She took ninth at the Monarch Invitational last season, finishing in 19:27.

"I was really scared at first. I thought I was going to be pretty bad, being a first-year junior. But actually I wasn't too bad. I ended up being on varsity," Keil said. "I did learn a lot. I learned that runners are very intelligent, having to learn how to keep a pace and knowing how hard you need to push yourself."

While competition for varsity spots is tough, Dumler has a good idea of who his varsity girl runners will be this season. Alongside Keil, look for juniors Alicia Lechman, Racheal Hamel, Shelby Stouffer, Jordyn Manhart, and freshmen Julia Hess, Cheyenne Rhoades and Tabitha Brandel.

The boys' team has as many as a dozen competing for the top seven spots, although Dumler likes what he has picked out for the team's first meet on Saturday at TMP.

"I'm really excited about that. They are really athletic and going to help the team. Even if they aren't the ones making the varsity roster, they are going to be the ones pushing the back end of our roster up," Dumler said. "So I'm really excited to see where this year goes. We have high aspirations for it. If the first two and a half weeks of practice are any indication, we should have an exciting year."