WALLA WALLA - The reasons for optimism are many as Scott Shields trots toward his second season as coach of the Whitman College men's and women's cross country teams.
Shields, in fact, has 40-plus reasons to be hopeful.
That's the approximate number of runners on his two rosters as the Missionaries get ready to host the season-opening Whitman Invitational at Fort Walla Walla Park Saturday morning.
"We've got a good, healthy turnout for both teams," Shields said. "The numbers are up significantly on the men's side, which helps generate more positive energy on that side of the program."
A year ago, in his first season at the helm, Shields watched the Whitman women finish fourth at the Northwest Conference Championships, missing third by just six place points.
Meanwhile, the Missionary men took sixth at the championship meet, falling just two points shy of fifth.
"It's virtually impossible to tell what's going to happen this fall within the conference," Shields said. "No one has raced yet, and it eventually boils down to which teams stay healthy, and who competes and runs well at the championships.
"But we're excited about where we think our runners are headed this fall. We have good returning talent and some first-year runners who should really help us.
"If we stay healthy and things fall into place for us on race days, there's no reason why both teams shouldn't finish higher in the conference standings," he said. "We should be faster and stronger, top to bottom, and that's exciting."
After this Saturday's Whitman Invitational, the Missionaries spend the next several weeks traveling to races from Seattle and Spokane to Salem.
The 2011 conference championship races are set for Willamette Mission State Park near Brooks, Ore., in late October.
The NCAA Division III West Region races follow on Nov. 12, in Pomona College. Running well at regionals means a shot at qualifying, either as a team or individually, for the national championships on Nov. 19 in Winneconne, Wis.
Shields, a 1991 Whitman graduate, coached the women's soccer team for 16 seasons before making the switch last year to the cross country program.
"It's great to have all of runners - my extended family - back on campus," he said. "We've only been back together for a few weeks now but the bonds between us are already getting stronger.
"It's wonderful to be around this group. I don't know who is more excited, me or my immediate family. My 4- and 7-year-old sons have laced up their shoes and are running around the house to get ready for the first meet."
Whitman Women's Team
Of the 10 women who ran for Whitman at the NWC championships a year ago, all but two are back this fall to lead a roster of 26 runners.
One of the runners lost to graduation, however, was three-time All-NWC speedster Kristen Ballinger, who qualified for nationals in each of the past three season, twice as an individual.
"I don't know that we have anyone who is ready to replace Kristen at this point, but our depth of talent is better than it was a year ago," Shields said. "We have the potential to score better as a team."
Emilie Gilbert, a junior, is the top returnee. She was 10th at the conference finals last October and then earned all-region honors by placing 29th in a field of 119 runners at regionals.
Earlier this month, however, it was Gilbert's twin Katri Gilbert grabbing a bit of the limelight by winning the team's 5,000-meter time trial, edging her sister in second place by about seven seconds.
Sophomore Eliza Vistica and senior Jennifer Farley, two runners who finished in Whitman's top five at last year's conference championships, are also back this fall.
Junior Lori Mendelsohn, who missed the conference meet last year because of a family commitment, returned to action for the regional finals, running third for Whitman in that race.
Other returnees poised for a run at Whitman's top 10 are sophomore Skye Pauly, seniors Mollee Huisinga and Kelly Jensen, and juniors Shannon McCarty and Lauren Davis.
Pauly and Huisinga finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in the recent time trial.
"They are all talented and have great potential, so I am excited to see how the first-year women develop this season and beyond," Shields said.
Whitman Men's Team
Looking at his men's team, Shields hesitates to draw too many conclusions from its early 5,000-meter time trial, since that distance is 3,000 meters less than what the men run in competition.
"We'll have a better idea about our men's team after we've run a race or two, but for now we've got a bunch of guys and some new faces who could fill the top spots," he said.
Of Whitman's top five runners at the NWC championships last year, three graduated.
Sophomore Michael Jorgensen seems intent on filling one of those openings at the top.
A year ago, Jorgensen posted Whitman's sixth-best time at the conference finals and then concluded his rookie season by running fifth for the Missionaries at regionals. At the recent time trial, however, he ran a strong first, beating his nearest competitor by seven seconds.
The biggest question mark for the men, perhaps, is junior Cory Rand, who finished fourth in the time trial.
"Cory really had a non-existent season last year because of the injuries," Shields said. "He feels good to start the year, so our hope is that we can bring him along slowly and have him return to being one of the top runners in the conference."
Rand finished ninth at the NWC championships as a freshman, earning all-conference honors.
"We have three more runners who did well last fall and also look good to start this season," Shields said.
Junior Taylor Mesodjenik was fifth in the time trial while sophomores Spencer Corwin and Chris Farley were sixth and eighth, respectively.
"All three of those guys have lots of ability and potential," Shields said. "Taylor and Spencer have great attitudes and look strong in a race. Chris might just be scratching the surface in what he can do. His upside his huge."
Other returning runners include two seniors, Brendan Boyer and Yonas Fikak, and two sophomores, Rob Dalton and Taylor Nelson.
The men's roster also includes eight newcomers, and more than just a few might be ready to make an quick impact.
"A lot of the new guys are quality runners," Shields said. "They have good potential, so we'll see how their seasons progress."