It’s been a rare occasion in her more than 15 years of being the head cross country coach where Krista Linenberger has had to replace nearly her entire varsity roster from the previous season.

But that’s what is facing Linenberger for the 2018 campaign, which begins in earnest on Thursday when the Buffaloes travel to the Great Bend Invitational, with the meet to start at 4 p.m.

Linenberger has three returners on the boys side of the roster while only one returns on the girls team, so the preseason competition the seven varsity spots has been wide open.

Senior Javyn Contreras was the highest-placed member of the eighth-place Buffs’ boys team at the 2017 state 6A meet, finishing 53rd with a time of 17:08.2 over the 5-kilometer Rim Rock Farm layout.

A pair of juniors — Ethan Fisher and Mario Bustillos — also ran varsity a year ago, placing 86th and 87th, respectively. Contreras and Fisher, though, enjoyed a late spring success on the track when they comprised half of the 6A state champion 4x800-meter relay team.

“We lost big numbers both ways,” Linenberger said of the four boys and five girls who graduated last spring. “Right now, we’re just focused on getting better. We’ve been in the same boat before, so you don’t stress out too much on what place you get, but what is your time and are you getting better every week.”

Those who earned the early-season varsity roster spots are sophomore Emilio Arteaga, senior Angel Ayala, Bustillos, Contreras, Fisher, junior Austin Hess and sophomore Brody Hoff.

“Javyn and Ethan, especially, have run ahead of the rest of the kids,” Linenberger said. “We’re hopeful that the other kids will begin to catch up and close that gap as the season progresses.”

On the girls side, only senior Taylor Savolt is back, and she finished well down the list at the state cross country meet. But the track standout hadn’t competed in cross country before last season and was a late addition to the roster without any summer workouts to build up her endurance.

Now that she’s had a summer of long-distance workouts, Savolt is battling junior Destiny Avila for the top spot through the early time trials and practices.

“Those two are pretty close to each other right now,” Linenberger said of Avila and Savolt.

A surprise No. 3 at the moment is senior Emma Tull, a standout swimmer in the spring for the Buffs, who is out for the sport for the first time.

“I don’t normally run a first-time runner, but Emma has proven herself every day,” Linenberger said of Tull, who has qualified for the state swim meet each of her varsity seasons. “The time trials may have taken on a little more significance the past couple of weeks, just because we’ve got so many new faces.”

With Avila and Savolt securing the top two spots, and Tull not far behind, the remaining four spots for Thursday’s season opener will be taken by junior Ana Casados, senior Jacqueline Gonzalez, sophomore Jyothilakshmi Kalarikkal, and junior Kaetlin Kohlhorst.

The Buffs’ boys placed eighth at state in 2017 while the girls finished 11th of 12 teams. But Linenberger isn’t concerned about that right now.

“The goal is to get better every day and improve each week at the meets,” Linenberger said. “We’ve been successful in recent years by doing that, so we just need to be focused on that steady improvement.”