There may not be a quick fix for the declining numbers that have affected Bobcat athletics across the board.
Entering the 2013 campaign with 20 members, the Marshalltown girls' cross country team hasn't been immune to the issue either.
Though in a sport rarely defined by overnight successes, the Bobcats have put in the time and miles to make their roster size an afterthought.
Returning its entire quintet of scoring runners from last year's state qualifier meet, Marshalltown is ready to rise up in the ranks in the second season of the Central Iowa Conference.
Doug Bacon enters his 11th year at the helm and is hopeful one or two more runners will join the team. Though even if the roster size remains in neutral, he's excited to see what his talented veteran corps can do when they shift into race mode.
"We've had a good summer, probably the best we've had in 3 or 4 years as far as girls being dedicated," said Bacon, who points to last Saturday's time trial as an early reference point.
"After the time trial Saturday, we have a lot of girls that just look stronger. Last year at the 1 1/2 mile mark a lot of them were hanging on, though this year they looked much better."
Junior Rachel Blagg and senior Michaela Huey are primed for breakout seasons after each put in their best summer of training according to Bacon. Blagg, who had an appendectomy early last season, missed the cut for state by one spot last year. Huey - a three-year varsity mainstay - is coming off a 30th place finish and has been right with Blagg in early season workouts.
"There's a higher level of fitness with those two," said Bacon, who believes each could contend for an individual ticket to Fort Dodge and will help each other throughout the year.
"Michaela has a way of pushing Rachel without saying a word."
Also returning from 2012's seventh place district contingent are seniors Wynn Tan (32nd) - another three-year varsity stalwart, Victoria Jones (46th) and Abby Snyder (49th). Jones has battled an upper calf injury through the early season, though Bacon believes she'll turn the corner soon.
Sophomore Ellyn Boland, junior Becky Schwartzenburg and freshman Ashley McBeth will also vie for spots in the Bobcats' top seven. McBeth, who finished fifth at last week's time trial, may be under the radar now, though Bacon doesn't expect that to last for long.
"I'm quite certain in the hallways of MHS that she disappears. Nobody knows who the girl is," Bacon said of the talented freshman. "But as hard as she works and as aggressive as she is, there's nobody who won't."
Freshman Hannah Shirar and senior Sabrina Daugherty will also be in contention to contribute to the top seven.
Marshalltown finished ninth out of 11 squads in the CIC meet last season and with Ankeny Centennial expanding the league to 12, the competition won't be letting up. Though last year's conference meet marked the first time MHS had all three of its top runners racing together after each missed stretches of the year due to injury and illness.
If the Bobcats can keep their full unit intact this year, Bacon believes his squad can rise to the middle of the pack. That's not an easy task in a conference that features seven state qualifiers from 2012 including third place Johnston which returns all but one runner from its top seven.
Marshalltown will be tested early and often starting with the Southeast Polk Invite Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.
"There are no gimmes on the schedule," said Bacon. "You're going to have to beat the best teams in the state to get into the state meet, so you better run against them."
With experience in the lineup, a strong summer of training behind them and some talented newcomers ready to make an impact, the Bobcats are eager to see what they can do at full strength.
"We have a plan," said Bacon of preparing for the conference and state qualifying meets.
"Hopefully everything works out and everybody is still healthy when we get there."