Devin Neff keeps achieving goals and setting loftier ones as a standout for the Mark Twain cross country team.
A year ago, the now-senior speedster embarked on a mission to finish among the 25 best runners in Class 2. He finished 15th in the state championships.
Heading into 2017, he's raising the bar again.
“My goal is top 10,” Neff said. “It's gonna take hard work, motivation and just telling myself I can do it. It's about beating the person in front of me. That's what's going to get me there.”
It's with that competitive spirit that Neff leads a group of 11 runners into a new campaign under the direction of coach Erin Mack.
The Mark Twain program features seven girls and four boys. Gone is a strong graduated class, whose void leaves the next generation the opportunity to step up.
Shelby Epperson and Anna Gill return as seniors for the girls and have high expectations for their final season.
“I'm really excited to finish it out,” Gill said of her prep career. “We've had a good run, a lot of fun people come through the program. My freshman year, we went to state, and that's the goal, to get the girls team back to state. That's been one of goals every year since then, and we were really close last year.”
In addition to Ashlyn Eisele and Hannah Smith, who return as sophomores, the unit is rounded out by the emergence of three freshmen: Emily Branham, Zoe Miller and Emma Ross.
“I'm really excited for the three that I have,” Mack said of the newcomers. “They're going to be a big part of the team this year just because they are strong competitors. Very motivated. They want to do well and they push themselves. They've got a really good mindset to come out and compete.”
Eisele hopes to put together a strong season after an injury derailed her last fall. The sophomore's goal is to break 25 minutes in a 5K race.
“From meets last year, I've learned how to pace myself for a 5K and just competing with other really good runners,” she said.
Epperson called Mack the driving force of the squad, pinpointing her as a reason she's been committed to the sport.
“(Coach Mack) is our motivation,” she said. “She's really fun. She acts like one of us and has that personality. She's really good.”
The popular coach mentioned she doesn't want her girls squad to be underestimated this year.
“The girls are going to run as a team, and you want to see that team succeed, but you also want to see the individuals succeed,” she explained. “Hopefully we can get where we to be, and if we fall short, as long as the girls feel like they gave 100 percent and gave everything they had when they had it, I don't want them to hang their heads and I'm not going to be disappointed.”
On the boys side Neff is joined by sophomore Caleb Peters as the only returning talent, while senior Cash Caldwell and sophomore Brock Hooley will both compete for the first time.
Although the boys will run as individuals once the season begins, they're still treating each other as teammates.
“We're just pushing each other,” Peters said. “I love that. I love that a lot. It works. We're all running, we're talking and having a good 'ole time, but we're still working hard.”
Mark Twain begins the season Aug. 26 at the Mexico Fall Invitational.