Bruce Luther looks out at a sea of purple-clad athletes he has to work with this spring, and a broad smile comes across his face.
The fourth-year Dixon boys track coach has both quantity (43 athletes, up from 28 last season) and quality (eight individual qualifiers for the Illinois Top Prep Times meet, held Saturday in Bloomington), and he declares himself "ecstatic" with his squad.
Boys who would be fixtures at other schools find themselves fighting for spots in the lineup with the Dukes. It's a situation track coaches hope for, but don't always get.
"It's a healthy competitiveness," Luther said. "The boys push each each other, but there's a lot of great camaraderie on this team. There's no animosity. We're just trying to get better as a team."
"It's a lot more fun," senior sprinter Alex LaMendola added. "You've got more guys to practice, and it's easier to get going."
The boost in numbers is due in part to a deal made by one of the top members of the team, junior sprinter/hurdler/jumper J.D Giesen, a returning state qualifier. Giesen went out for the basketball team this past winter, on the condition that some of the hoopsters would try their hand at track.
That resulted in the addition of first-year track team members Matt Coffey, Laron Carr, Kyle LeBlanc, Ryan Webb, Javier Gomez and Nate Gascoigne. Another winter sports standout, wrestler Kylian Lally, also went out for track.
"They're natural athletes, so it's nice to have them," Luther said. "They've really helped us out, and they're picking things up quickly."
Lally was among the Dixon contingent to compete at the Illinois Prep Top Times meet, which athletes need to qualify for based on indoor performances earlier this season. He was joined by Reid Deets, Quinton Douglas, Gieson, Evan Grady, LaMendola, Cody Sondgeroth and Simon Thorpe.
Six more Dukes (Coffey, Carr, LeBlanc, Dane Schielein, Skylar Mitchell and Austin Trevino) were alternates.
Luther was happy to have a large group of Dukes make the trip to Bloomington, but stressed its main purpose was to use it as a gauge for what lies ahead.
"It's a morale booster," Luther said. "It's like, 'If we can do this indoors, can you imagine what we can do outdoors?' In a lot of cases, you can cut 2 or 3 seconds just by going outside."
Track is an individual sport, with the ultimate goal to be able to showcase your talents at the state meet in Charleston, but there is also a team aspect. For Luther, the two most important of those meets are the indoor and outdoor Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference meets.
The indoor was held March 22 at the Westwood Sports Complex in Sterling, and the Dukes placed second with 68 points. Kaneland won with 103 points, and the Knights are the gold standard right now in track, according to Luther.
"Kaneland sets the standard," Luther said. "They're an awesome team, they're well-coached, and if we can beat them, then we know we're doing the right thing."
A 23-man Dukes squad led by Scott Goad and Jon Shippert did that outdoors 2 years ago, winning by one point. Dixon hopes to do it again, when the outdoor conference meet is held Friday, May 16 in Maple Park.
"We've got a lot of talented athletes," Deets said, "so this should be our year. Definitely, we should get them."
Returning state qualifiers
J.D. Gieson (LJ, 300 IH)
Simon Thorpe (3,200)
Reid Deets (200)