Nodaway Valley cross country, from left: Gabe Wieland, Tyler Kirsch and Riley Blay.

BURLINGTON JUNCTION, Mo. — If you are rebuilding a cross-country team, starting with a sophomore who already has three state medals on his resume is a good place to start. That’s what Nodaway Valley has this season.

Riley Blay finished 16th in the state cross-country meet as West Nodaway earned a state trophy with a fourth-place finish. Blay then took third in the 3,200-meter run and seventh in the 1,600-meter run during track and field season.

“I just want to get down around my brother’s (Tyler Blay) times and hopefully be competing for a state championship,” Blay said.

Blay was the highest-finishing freshman in the Class 1 cross country last season with the next closest freshman finishing 30th.

With state champion Tyler Blay and top-10 finisher Duke Ingraham having graduated, Riley Blay is in a much different role this year as the only returning runner on the team and the clear leader of the group. Although he is just a sophomore, he has embraced that role.

“It has been pretty fun,” Blay said. “We just need to get into a groove and keep rolling.”

The Thunder also have a new coach guiding this season with Nodaway-Holt teacher Kenneth Hamilton taking over the program. Hamilton has coached track and field before and is himself a marathon runner.

“I’m stepping into the program here on the shoulders of Bill (Blay) and Colton (Blay) and the previous coaches here at West Nodaway,” Hamilton said. “As a runner myself, I know the challenges that come with cross country, training consistently and sticking with the program. We’ve got a definitely coach-by-committee approach to this year with Colton returning as an assistant coach and with Bill helping out.”

He does realize how accomplished Blay is already though and that his cousin (Colton) and father (Bill) have both coached cross country and that his brother was a state champion last year who is currently running in college. Hamilton knows Blay understands his strategy and training, he is focused on building up the rest of the team.

Currently, the rest of the team is West Nodaway’s Tyler Kirsch and Nodaway-Holt’s Gabe Wieland.

“Running is not always fun,” Hamilton said. “It takes a couple things to have success in cross country. One of those things is a positive attitude, because you have to have that positive mentality. Tyler is always happy. The kid is always in a good mood. He is always joking around about stuff and brings positivity to practice.

“Gabe wants to be good. He has that drive to succeed and he wants to find success. And that is the other thing you need. You have to find that internal motivation because cross country is a weird balance between a team sport and an individual sport.”

Kirsch says Blay convinced him to give the sport a try and is excited to improve as the season goes on.

“He is the one who got me into it,” Kirsch said.

He joked that he tried to train with Blay during the summer, but found out that it was better if they train on their own.

“I can’t keep up with him — I tried one day,” Kirsch said.

Wieland has impressed Hamilton and Blay early on with his natural talent for the sport.

“I think I am getting used to the running,” Wieland said. “It is getting a little bit easier and I’m getting better. I think I’ll be running ready by the time we have our first meet.”

The Thunder will have their first meet on Tuesday, Sept. 7, in Clarinda.