After careful thought, this is how New Canaan girls cross country coach Art Brown will describe his approach to the upcoming 2014 season, his fifth leading the Rams.

"Cautiously optimistic."

Before a preseason practice in early September, captain Lily Baer doesn't hesitate when delivering her equally succinct answer.

"We're here to have fun and run," she says.

One year after losing six of its fastest runners, New Canaan refuses to look back. Instead, the Rams are aiming is to transform a youthful, talented roster into a contending squad by the end of the new sesason. At the top, Baer is joined by fellow captains Corrine Vietorisz and Emma Rosenstein, who intend to boost team bonding with off-the-field activities and hard on-course training.

Rosenstein is the lone returning runner from last season's top-seven group, which competed in meets and produced a 14-4 campaign. The Rams finished 11th in the 2013 Class L state meet, largely thanks to a driven senior group that left behind a strong impression on its replacements.

"Their work ethic was unlike anything I've ever seen," Rosenstein said. "They were a group of friends, and they all worked as hard as each other. They built up each other. It was pretty inspiring."

Ultimately, as so many new, young runners fill vacant spots, the theme of the 2014 season is potential. And that leaves a load of possibilities at the finish line.

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"This is one season where I really have no idea what to expect," Brown said. "It's not a rebuilding year because we have a good program, and I don't think good programs have rebuilding years. But we have a lot of kids who are showing a lot of potential and I think it will take them a few weeks to really get to know the sport and perform up to their ability level."

According to Brown, senior Emma Crowley is coming off a strong summer of training, as is junior Amanda Dobbin. Thus far, the two have taken the largest steps of any Ram toward achieving the program's annual goal of improving individual and team finishes from a year ago. For now, team success will not be measured by New Canaan's finish in various regular and postseason team meets. Rather, the accumulation of shaved seconds off individual times.

"Success is measured by their individual performance," Brown said. " If they end the season better than where they started, to me, that's a successful year, regardless of where they're at a that time."

The Rams will compete in five regular season meets before hosting the FCIAC championship at Waveny Park on Oct. 16. Last season, New Canaan took sixth place at the FCIACs in its finest performance of the fall. If the host team is to come close to that finish again, it will need considerable contributions from newer upperclassmen and sophomores Drew Davis, Annalee Greenspan, Anne Greer and Lauren Carlson.

At the very least, the conference title race will offer a chance for those second-year runners and a number of freshmen, some of whom participated in New Canaan's brand-new feeder program, to show how much they've developed. Per Brown, Cali Brannan and Megan Waldron could earn points in their first year at the high school level.

The Rams open their 2014 campaign Tuesday in a home meet against Ridgefield, Trinity Catholic, St. Joseph and Westhill at 4 p.m.