Evanston’s boys cross country team took a step back last fall and settled for 5th place as a team at the Central Suburban League South division meet.

The experience — painful as it was — could pay off this fall for Coach Don Michelin’s squad, which opens Saturday at the Hinsdale South Invitational meet.

Even with four of the squad’s top six runners returning for the Wildkits, it will be difficult to climb very high in the conference standings, where defending champion New Trier returns two of its top four athletes from a team that placed sixth in the Illinois High School Association Class 3A state finals.

But Michelin, a veteran coach, senses a new spirit of commitment and leadership from ETHS runners who wound up last fall staring at the backs of too many opposing runners.

One of those runners is senior Carl Klamm, who faded to 20th at the CSL South meet — losing out to several foes he had beaten during the regular season — and missed out on a chance to qualify for the state finals later in the postseason.

Klamm’s effort was a bit of a comedown considering that he placed 11th in the conference as a sophomore. Considering that the ETHS standout was one of the state’s top middle distance competitors during the spring track season, the fall of 2013 was a big disappointment for the talented Klamm.

“Carl just had an off year, and for various reasons, we didn’t do it as a team last year,” Michelin said. “This year I think our seniors (Klamm, Esteban Escobar, Conrad Gordon, Brandon Carter) are doing a better job of giving us the leadership we need. There’s no doubt in my mind that we have better leadership. Guys like Gordon and (junior) Spencer Eanes are doing a great job of pushing the pace and bringing the others along in practice. To me, that action is worth a thousand words.”

Klamm’s position as the squad’s No. 1 runner isn’t likely to be challenged from within. But as in the past, he’s taken the summer off from serious training and may be in a “catch up” mode at the start of the season.

That’s OK with Michelin, who knows that where you finish the season is more important than where you start.

“Hopefully Carl is maturing as a more complete runner,” the coach said. “He was just sick about the way the season ended for him last year. He understands what he needs to do to be successful.

“I would hope that his vision is that he needs a good cross country season to reflect on a great (spring of 2015) track season. You can’t do it without that 3-mile (race) base you get in the fall. I’m talking about him having a race base where he’s running in the 15s (minutes) and maybe the 14s in cross country. He runs a 47 second quarter mile, a 1:52 half mile and a 4:20 mile, so you know that he’s got the juice.”

Michelin also saw signs in the team’s pre-season workouts that Escobar, who finished 21st in the CSL South meet, is starting regain his old running form, too. “Things just didn’t work out too well for him last year, but I just hope he keeps working hard and improving every day this year,” said the coach. “If he does that, he’ll have a tremendous senior year.”

Eanes and Gordon also figure to be among the top four ETHS runners on a weekly basis, but expect challenges from a pair of rising sophomores in Sam Bergman and Paul Clarke. The pair will stay on the lower levels for Saturday’s race but should crack the varsity lineup sooner rather than later.

Both runners were all-conference on the freshman level last season. Bergman ran a personal best time in the varsity 4-mile time trial this week and Clarke was only 5 seconds behind him. Also in contention for the top spots are junior David Burkhart, junior Nate Holzmueller, junior Daniel Meyer and junior Mitchell Estberg.