Although they lost three crucial members of the Class of 2005, the members of the men’s cross country team are optimistic about their campaign.

Led by captain Pat Dantzer ’06, the Bulldogs have been focusing on running together as a group to maximize efficiency and give themselves an edge. But foes like Dartmouth, which returns four of its top five runners from last season, will pose a large threat to the Elis.

“For us as a team I think [the season] is shaping up,” David Napper ’07 said. “Putting our best foot forward at Heps running as a pack is important. A lot of guys are running close to the same time, so we can have a solid group to break up other Ivy teams. That is what we are looking at with the guys we have right now and with Dantzer our captain leading the way. Also whooping on Harvard at home, that is key.”

In order to run in a pack like they want to at home versus Harvard Oct. 1 and against the league at Van Cortlandt Park Oct. 28, the Bulldogs need to master one of their most difficult enemies, namely their own muscles and bones. In a training-intensive sport like cross country, injuries have the potential of plaguing talented teams.

For now, the team is healthy.

“No one is injured right now,” Ireland said. “Everyone we need to run well for us to be our best is healthy and training.”

Two recovering runners are Napper and Andrew Pitts ’07. Pitts, who was the Massachusetts state champion in high school, has had to deal with a nagging stress fracture but has been healthy since the end of last spring. Napper, on the other hand, was first sidelined by an abdominal muscle tear and later by a stress fracture in his right leg. The first injury forced him to sit out of the Ancient Eight’s Heptagonal Championships in 2004 after Napper placed 11th there his freshman year. Napper said he has mostly recovered but is still practicing with caution.

“If we are going to be good, David and Andrew have to be their best in two months [at Heps] when we need them to be good,” Ireland said. “If everyone is healthy, we can make a run at winning it.”

Unfortunately for the Elis, a few teams stand in their way. After placing third at Heps in 2003, the Bulldogs dropped to fifth last year due in large part to injuries. When all was said and done, Columbia, Dartmouth, Penn and Brown stood above the Elis in the Ivy standings. But since the Lions have lost two of their top five scoring runners, last year’s runner-up is now the favorite to take the Ivy title.

“Everyone is saying that Dartmouth is the favorite on paper and they are probably the favorite,” Ireland said. “After that it is anybody’s ball game.”

Some of the pressure to take the Bulldogs back to the top half of the league rests on Dantzer. Now that all-American and former captain Luke Meyer ’05 has graduated, not to mention team leaders and top-five runners Casey Moriarty ’05 and Josh Yelsey ’05, the underclassmen are looking to Dantzer to show them how to train to win, something Ireland said Dantzer has been doing.

“[He] is doing a good job,” Ireland said. “He has been around, and although we lost three big guys, [Dantzer] knows what it takes to run. He was around before the program got good and he doesn’t want to go back to then. He is getting the young guys to realize that just because they are young they can be as good as anyone in the league.”

With a strong group of freshmen, there is a lot of potential for the team. Ireland and Dantzer said Jared Bell ’09, Jake Gallagher ’09, and Murat Kayali ’09 could run at the varsity level sometime this season if they adjust well.

“Obviously the jump from 5K in high school to 8K in college is big,” Dantzer said. “Gallagher from running in Canada has the experience of running longer races, but all three have amazing times on the track. We hope those translate to good races on the course.”