Vongni Yang, The Union Democrat

Steven Grolle's ridiculously fast pace will be missed this season, but a new chapter has begun for the Sonora Wildcats cross country team.

For the first time in four years, the Wildcats will field a girls' team that could compete immediately for a Mother Lode League title and the boys return a solid core that helped reach the Sac-Joaquin Section finals last season.

The irreplaceable Grolle, who finished eighth and medaled at last year's Division IV CIF State Cross Country Championships, graduated this summer.

Filling the void of the a two-time Sac-Joaquin Section champ, will be an experienced trio of runners: Shaan French Jr., Thomas Kruetzfeldt and Paul Mika.

"Frenchy has been looking good and working hard all summer," said Sonora Wildcats coach Glenn Bass. "He also ran a great race at Pinecrest (Aug. 10). Thomas has looked good too as has Paul Mika."

The team of Grolle, French Jr., Kruetzfeldt, Mika, Patrick McConnell and Sean Brennan placed fifth at the 2013 Subsection Division IV Cross Country Meet in Frogtown to punch its ticket to the section finals.

Five of those runners - except for Grolle - are returning for the 2014 campaign.

"Sean Brennan has shown remarkable improvement and Patrick McConnell really picked up some speed since last fall," Bass said.

Two freshmen who may push the five are Luke Salazar and Ian Smith. Smith is the younger brother of former Wildcat standout and current Division I Troy Trojan runner SamanthaSmith.

"Luke Salazar has shown some promise as does Ian Smith," Bass said.

For the Wildcat girls, Bass has one senior, one sophomore and three freshmen. None have any high school cross country experience.

One runner who makes an immediate impact is Cassi Land.

Land, as a member of the Foothill Gold Running and Track Club, finished fourth in the her division in the 1,500-meter final at 4:47.93 at the USA Track and Field National Junior Olympics in late July.

"Cassi Land promises to be a great runner," Bass said. "Tori is healthy and has shown great improvement and are third freshman Kaarina Thompson has a marvelous work ethic."

Other members on the girls team are sophomore Kaylee McLenahaan and senior Baylee Johnson. McLenahaan missed last season with injuries and Johnson, who played a couple of years on the Wildcat soccer team.

"We will be thin in numbers, but we should be a solid team if we can stay healthy," Bass said.

The Wildcats open their season when they head to Sparks, Nev., for the 21-team Twilight Classic onAug. 29.

"It will be our first trip out of state, and also our first chance to run under lights in the evening," Bass said.