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After placing 14th at the NCAA national cham­pi­onship last year, the men’s cross country team is looking to build expe­rience and return to the national cham­pi­onship this year, according to head coach Andrew Towne.

“Last year, we made nationals for the first time since 2004,” team captain senior Nathan Jones said. “We had a lot of expe­rience — three seniors and a lot of upper­classmen. It was a really good year.”

The team will start its season this Friday at the Michigan State Spartan Invi­ta­tional.

Towne said the first meet of the season is always highly antic­i­pated, after all of the training leading up to it.

“The team has put in a lot of work over the summer, we had a really good camp, and they’ve done a really nice job since we’ve been back on campus, but there haven’t been any races yet, so I think they’re excited for that race,” Towne said. “Michigan State’s always been a good opener for us with some good com­pe­tition, so that will give them a chance to see where they’re at.”

Though three of the team’s top runners from last year grad­uated, plenty of talent is returning. Senior Tony Wondaal earned All-American honors last year, and sophomore Joey Humes was named the 2016 GLIAC men’s cross country and indoor track freshman of the year.

“For this year, the biggest thing is that we have some pieces, we just have to put it all together,” Jones said. “It’s a new group of guys, so new expec­ta­tions, but I think you will see this team progress as the season goes on.”

The men’s cross country team was the favorite in the con­ference coaches’ pre­season poll, and the team is ranked sixth in the US Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Asso­ci­a­tion’s rankings.

Assistant coach R.P. White said the com­pe­tition in the G‑MAC will be similar to the GLIAC. Although the team will no longer face national con­tender Grand Valley State Uni­versity, Hillsdale will still compete against a similar depth of teams, White said. The NCAA national selection process was also adjusted this year to place a greater emphasis on head-to-head com­pe­tition, in addition to regional per­for­mance, White said.

“We’re really excited, and it’s going to be a little bit of a learning expe­rience for the freshmen,” he said. “I’m just excited to see how it unfolds.”