The continued brilliance of a senior leader combined with a couple of breakout individuals to lead the Nevada boys’ cross country team back to the promised land in 2017.

Malachi Hornbuckle, a 2016 state qualifier, stepped up to become a top-10 runner in Class 3A for Nevada this season. Noah Nusbaum and Dalton Baker then came on at just the right time to get the Cubs over the hump as they made it to state as a team for the first time since 2009.

“The boys thought they could have been a state team last year, and they fed off that disappointment and worked hard over the summer,” Nevada head cross country coach Mike Christiansen said. “Our season is relatively short, and if you don’t put the miles in during the summer, you are playing catchup to the rest of the teams you compete against. Our team gets that now better than we ever have — they are getting the work done in the summer.”

Nevada entered the season with high hopes. Along with the drastic improvement by Nusbaum and Baker, the Cubs also brought in Edison Weig — a 2016 state qualifier from West Marshall.

But injuries temporarily dampened that enthusiasm. Entering the second meet of the season at Pella, Weig suffered a stress fracture, Nusbaum and Dean Check were dealt hamstring injuries and Hornbuckle was out with a foot injury.

Hornbuckle was able to come back immediately. But it took Check until the Jim Klein Invitational and Nusbaum until the Heart of Iowa Conference meet — both in October at Jewell — to get back, and Weig was lost for the season.

“I told someone the other day, it seemed like we were running uphill all year,” Christiansen said. “Pella was probably the ugliest it’s ever been. Second meet in and we don’t have our Nos. 1, 2 ,3 and 8 runners. So we do what we always do — it’s next man up and let’s keep going.”

Nevada survived, thanks in large part to Hornbuckle and the emergence of Baker and Carter Franzen. The Cubs won the Greene County and South Hamilton meets, and by the time the HOIC meet rolled around on Oct. 9, the Cubs were starting to put it together.

Nevada came in second at conference behind a Gilbert team that went on to win the 3A state championship. The Cubs scored 65 points to edge a strong South Hamilton team by four points on its home course to take runner-up behind Gilbert’s outstanding score of 23.

The Cubs then took it to another gear at the qualifying meet in Pella Oct. 19.

Back on the same course, its injury problems from early September surmounted, Nevada gained a huge measure of redemption by placing third with 97 points to end an eight-year drought at state. The Cubs defeated Oskaloosa by seven points and only trailed No. 3 Dallas Center-Grimes and No. 9 Clear Creek-Amana in the final standings.

“They never lost hope that we could put this team back together and still make the state meet, and we did!” Christiansen said. “This is also where coach (Ted) Johnson and coach (Ian) Harris were so awesome to have. One coach could take kids up to the eliptical or bikes, while the other two can go out on the roads with the team. With 51 kids, and most of our workouts done away from the school, we would not have got through this without these two coaches.”

At state, Nevada came in 13th in 3A with a score of 265. Four Cub runners placed in the top 100, running against the best in 3A.

“Anytime you finish at state, it’s a success,” Christiansen said. “We knew we had something special when after the first meet at Gilbert we were third, right behind what ended up being the first and second (3A) teams at the state meet (Gilbert and DCG). Injuries to a couple key people set us back, but the kids kept fighting and never stopped thinking that state was possible.”

Hornbuckle was sensational in his final season. He was ranked as high as third individually in 3A, took second at the HOIC meet and came in ninth at state.

“Malachi had a great senior season, winning five meets and getting into the top 10 at state,” Christiansen said. “But what I loved is that he led this team by example. Nobody worked harder than he did — every day.”

Hornbuckle ran a time of 17 minutes, eight seconds at the HOIC meet and he won the qualifying meet in 16:35.5. At state, Hornbuckle clocked in at 16:28.3 and he ran the fastest time for a Nevada runner ever at the Nevada Invitational with a career-best mark of 16:22.10.

Baker turned in a tremendous junior season.

Baker ran the seventh-fastest time ever for a Cub runner at the Nevada Invitational at 17:28 and placed 21st at the HOIC meet. He saved his best for last, when Nevada needed it the most.

Baker pushed Nevada over the top at the qualifying meet as he took 15th to earn a spot as an individual state qualifier with a time of 17:36. At state, he ran the fastest time of his career at 17:26 to place 73rd.

Nusbaum rallied to finish strong after recovering from his hamstring injury. He placed 20th at the HOIC meet, just missed qualifying for state with an 18th-place effort at the qualifying meet, then came in 54th at state with by far the best time of his career at 17:10.

Franzen was a steady presence for Nevada during his sophomore year.

Franzen came up big at conference with a 13th-place time of 18:04 and took 22nd at the qualifying meet with an 18:03.8 showing. At state, he clocked in at 17:43.8 to place 92nd, just missing his season-best effort of 17:42 at South Hamilton.

Senior Connor Kline and juniors Jacob Sanders and Connor Hines were Nevada’s other regular varsity runners.

Kline came in 29th at conference, 41st at the qualifying meet and 127th at state. His top time was 18:06 at South Hamilton.

Sanders wound up 22nd at conference, 51st at the qualifying meet and 126th at state. He peaked with a time of 18:10 at South Hamilton.

Hines took 41st at conference, 61st at the qualifying meet and 127th at state. His best effort was 19:13 at the conference meet.

Cheek topped out at 19:17 and freshman Elliot Frideres 18:50 at the South Hamilton meet. Weig ran an 18:03 at Gilbert and tried to come back at the HOIC meet, ending the season with a time of 19:22.

Replacing Hornbuckle and Weig — the team’s captains — along with Kline won’t be easy. But with Baker, Nusbaum, Franzen, Sanders, Hines, Check and Frideres all back, Nevada has a great core to build around in 2018.

The Nevada girls had to deal with inexperience, with its top five generally consisting of only one senior during the season. Like the boys, the girls also dealt with health issues.

But as the season progressed, the Cub girls kept getting better and better.

Nevada took second at the South Hamilton meet — finishing just 12 points out of first — then placed fifth out of eight teams at the HOIC meet. At the qualifying meet, the Cubs ended up 10th in a loaded 12-team field that qualified three top-10 teams for state.

“The girls took a big step into being a very competitive team going forward,” Christiansen said. “We relied heavily on freshman and sophomores this year for our varsity team. Now (that) they know what to expect and what they need to work on, we should be very strong next year.”

The Cubs produced six of the top seven 5-kilometer times run by Nevada girls’ runners at the Nevada Invitational this season. Those runners were senior Megan Gilchrist, juniors Mady Farmer and Ryanne Barker, sophomore Eliana Hornbuckle and freshmen Grace Cahill and Grace Heiden.

Gilchrist ran a 22:51.37 at the Nevada Invitational — the second-fastest 5-kilometer time ever run by a Cub girl at the meet. Gilchrist topped that time at conference, placing 24th with a season-best mark of 22:50, and she led the team with a 36th-place time of 22:54 at the qualifying meet.

Eliana Hornbuckle was the breakout runner for the Nevada girls.

Eliana ran the third-fastest 5-kilometer for the Cubs at the Nevada Invite — finishing in 22:53.40. She turned in the team’s best individual time of the season at conference, placing 15th in 22:08 to just miss making all-HOIC, and ended up 42nd at the qualifying meet in 23:45.0.

Farmer and Barker both missed several meets during the season. But they stepped up to run well at the end of the season.

Farmer ran a 24:31.88 at the Nevada Invite, placed 42nd at the HOIC meet in 23:42, 54th at the qualifying meet in 24:17.2 and her season-best time was 23:23 at South Hamilton. Barker finished the Nevada Invite in 25:04.29, was 50th at the HOIC meet in 24:30 and 53rd at the qualifying meet in 24:17 — which matched her previous season-best time of 24:17 at South Hamilton.

Cahill and Heiden had strong first seasons for Nevada.

Cahill ran a 23:08.58 at Nevada, a season-best 22:54 at conference and a 22:58.8 at the qualifying meet. Heiden turned in a season-best 24:18.95 at Nevada and matched that at the HOIC meet with a 24:19 effort.

Freshman Eleanor Elliott-Rude peaked with a time of 23:56, freshman Hannah Fritz topped out at 24:27 and sophomore Madison Davis ran a 24:29. Senior Kaylee Kruse peaked with a 23:35 at the HOIC meet.

With the loss of only two seniors from its regular top seven, the Nevada girls figure to be very competitive in 2018.

“I’m so proud of the girls,” Christiansen said. “They kept fighting, learning, asking questions — and I can’t wait to see what they can do next year.”