FIVE TEAMS TO WATCH
1. Danbury: A perennial power that has won the Class LL and State Open titles in each of the last three seasons, as well as the FCIAC championship in all but one season since 1999. The Hatters graduate five seniors who were named All-FCIAC 1st team, but attrition is something they have overcome in the past. This year's team will be led by juniors Dan Ronan and Alex Levine (both ran varsity last season), and senior captain Ray Crouch.
2. Ridgefield: Last season the Tigers finished fourth at the FCIAC Championship, third at the Class LL State Championship, and 10th at the State Open and return four of the top seven runners from that team (including three of their top four). Though they lost Michael Ignatowich, they return both Christian Kearns and Richard Hume, two seniors who were named All-FCIAC 1st team a year ago.
3. New Milford: The reigning champions of the SWC look fully capable of winning their eighth-consecutive conference title. "I think we have a good shot based on our experience," said New Milford coach Chris Bacich. "These guys were the bulk of our scoring last year." The Green Wave lost Craig Hunt, one of the best runners in the area, but return everyone else from their top seven.
4. Pomperaug: With the losses sustained by both Brookfield and Joel Barlow, Pomperaug could be a surprise contender in the SWC. Led by junior Colin McCrory, the Panthers return six of the top seven runners from last year's team, which finished sixth in the SWC Championship.
5. New Fairfield: The immensely talented senior John Raneri headlines an impressive group of returning runners. Fellow senior Jason Delucia, who finished seventh at the Class M Championship and ninth at the SWC Championship, also returns. In total, the Rebels return five of their top seven runners from last year.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. John Raneri (Sr.) New Fairfield: The 2008-2009 Gatorade Connecticut Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year returns for the Rebels. "I think Raneri is the premier runner in the conference (SWC)," said Bacich. Last year he placed first in at the Class M State Championship, leading the Rebels to second place as a team, and also took second at the Connecticut Open and ninth at New Englands.
2. Zachary Kraus (Sr.) New Milford: Kraus is the top runner on a loaded Green Wave team. "He had a really solid track season, trained very well over the summer," said Bacich. "He's looked tremendous in practice." Kraus finished sixth at the SWC Championship, 15th at the Class L Championship and 28th at the State Open.
3. Christian Kearns (Sr.)/Richard Hume (Sr.) Ridgefield: The stars of a strong Ridefield team. They finished eighth and 11th respectively at the FCIAC Championship and 38th and 44th and the State Open. At the LL Championship, Kearns finished in 11th place, one hundredth of a second in front of Hume.
4. Spencer Mannion (Jr.) Brookfield: Mannion is the top returning runner on a Brookfield team hit hard by graduation (the Wildcats lost their first, third, fourth and fifth point-scorers from a year ago). The junior finished 22nd last year at the Class MM Championship and 20th at the SWC Championship.
5. Connor Stauffer (Sr.) Joel Barlow: Stauffer (along with seniors Charles Goldburg and Bryan Urban) will have his hands full replacing the two top runners on the team. Stauffer finished 18th last season at the SWC Championship, and 11th on Barlow's third place team at the Class M Championship.
FIVE MEETS TO WATCH
1. September 15, New Milford, Brookfield, Weston, at Pomperaug: Four contenders for the SWC crown (the teams finished first, second, fifth and sixth respectively at the SWC Championships last year) face off in each school's first meet of the season. "We really want to have our best meets in October and November," said Bacich. "But certainly the best indicator of that is when you go against teams early."
2. September 22, Danbury, Darien, Staples at Bassick: This is the only time Danbury and Darien meet in the regular season. Though the Blue Wave lost three of their top six runners from last season (including All-FCIAC 1st Team runner Artem Skobrev), they remain one of Danbury's primary competitors in the conference. Darien finished second to the Hatters last year in the FCIAC Championship.
3. September 22, New Fairfield, Bunnell, Weston at Joel Barlow: Joel Barlow's performance against New Fairfield and Weston should give them a good idea how well the team has responded to the graduation of Michael Levene and Connor Robey, the Falcons' top two runners a year ago.
4. October 13, Danbury, Ridgefield, Stamford at Staples: The last meet of the season for these four teams should answer some questions heading into the postseason. Danbury and Staples finished first and third place in last year's FCIAC Championship, but both lost a ton of talent to graduation.
5. November 6, CIAC State Open Championship at Wickham Park (Manchester, CT): Classes and conferences collide in the definitive battle for state supremacy.
-- By John Saward