A young Destin Marlin Middle School cross country team is ready to hit the trail Wednesday in their first meet at Ruckel Middle in Niceville.
Out of 53 runners, only six are eighth graders.
"It's mostly a new team," said Destin Coach Ben Kackley at practice Monday afternoon. "Ruckel will be a big test to see where we are at."
Nevertheless, Kackley said about 25 of his squad went through the summer running program and made some "huge gains. But we want to see how that is going to pay off when it comes to the race on Wednesday."
Race time is 4 p.m. in Niceville.
But for now, Kackley said, the girl’s team is "looking pretty strong."
Seventh grader Erin Eubanks is the Marlins' "clear No. 1," Kackley said.
"Erin enters her first year of cross country coming off an outstanding track season, which took her all the way to the state meet," Kackley said. "She was a 5:27, 1,500 meter runner as a sixth grader and put in work over the summer. She is looking to make her mark on the two mile race."
Eighth grader Rachel McMullen is the girl’s team captain and has run with the Marlins since grade school and is "a born leader," Kackley said. "Rachel is the foundation of a girls group who looks to improve on last year’s state run."
Another Marlin to keep an eye on is sixth grader Delaney Cookman.
"Delaney is a born runner who has quickly made an impact on the top three girls," Kackley said. "She is coming off a solid summer and will improve as the season goes on. She has looked strong in practice and specializes in fast consistent mile times."
As for the boys, "I lost a lot from last year," Kackley said. He graduated several with runners moving on to Fort Walton Beach High and Niceville High.
Meanwhile, he's filling the gaps with younger kids.
"We have a huge sixth grade class and some fifth graders have come out," he said. "They are learning and it's a chance for them to see what it's like to run cross country at a high level."
The Marlins have nine sixth grade boys and eight fifth graders on the team.
Top of the pack right now is seventh grader Christian May.
"Christian has shown in practice that he is ready to be number one," Kackley said. "He spent a week of his summer in the hills of North Carolina at Warrior Running Camp and now looks to show his speed to the Okaloosa County competitors."
Captain of the boys' squad is eighth grader Sam Boutz.
"Sam is the last remaining member of the 2011 Boys State Championship team and looks to use his experience to take the Marlins back to the top. Sam has had a great summer and is ready to break out this season," Kackley said.
Seventh grader Wesley Shackelford will also be a runner to reckon with on the trail.
"Wesley has natural speed that he is learning to convert to fast times on the course," Kackley said. "He is not far off the pace of the top runners and could find himself in the lead a few meets into the season. Wesley is a quiet runner who could make some noise in the Okaloosa cross country scene."
ON THE TEAM
Fifth graders: Connor Bartlett, Daniel Fadida, Carson Hickok, Ethan Hunt, William Longhenry, Austin Paugh, Dylan Phillips and Dalton Williams.
Sixth graders: Zachary Alabata, Wesley Heyse, Joey Jones, Brady McCann (manager), Evan Olsen, Nathan Payne, Luke Pierce, Gabe West and Griffin Wilbur.
Seventh graders: Sebastain Belardino, Logan Boyd, Will Haught, John Hobbs, Trey Hunt, Austin Laird, Christian May, Corey Morea, Cubbie Schermerhorn, Wesley Shackelford, Harrison Smith, Will Tasillo and Brendan Turner.
Eighth graders: Sam Boutz, Grant Duvall and Isaac Machado.
Fifth graders: Anna Duvall and Hadleigh Wright.
Sixth graders: Lauren Adams, Halle Bright, Delaney Cookman, Breck Hart, Aubrey Jourdan, Clara Beth LaFollette, Theresa LaNasa, Kayla Melton, Caitlyn Ream, Abbie Stanford, Maile Sweeney and Hailey Veihman.
Seventh graders: Kaylee Bartlett, Lauren Buchman, Erin Eubanks and Lauren Tasillo.
Eighth graders: Riley Holahan, Savannah Lozano and Rachel McMullen.