ARARAT - It was a long winter for running coach Marcus Cooper as he prepared his stable for the Victorian Athletic League 2012/13 season.
Cooper is hoping the hard work is rewarded when the season kicks off next Sunday at the Meadowglen meeting in Epping.
"I had a month off after Easter with everyone else and then we did all winter in the shed getting fit and strong and I am starting to see the results already - They are running really well," Cooper said.
The Cooper stable has 16 athletes that will compete in more than 15 Gift meetings across the state over the coming months, while a further 14 or 15 people train with the running group during the week.
Cooper said there were still a couple more runners who are yet to decided if they will compete in events this summer.
"I think we will take the undecided ones to a meeting to watch and once they see that they will want to join in I am sure," he said.
"There is about 29 people in the group all up. Some of them are footballers who just want to get fit and other people just looking after their general fitness.
"It is growing and that is exciting - I love it!
"What I like seeing are the ones that don't compete come along and train with us and you see them get fitter and fitter and their confidence just jumps up."
Sarah Blizzard is one of the stable's star runners set for a big season.
The 16-year-old had a breakout year during the 2011/12 VAL season, including victory in the 120 metres Barry Plant Women's handicap at St Albans, along with appearances in a number of feature race finals.
In the second half of this year Blizzard represented Australia in track and field events in Canada and has recently ran personal best times including at a state meet in Melbourne.
Cooper said he has carefully mapped out Blizzard's coming season.
"I've set Sarah for one big race at Stonnington, so she is going to be running a few different races in the lead up to that," he said.
"She will be freshened up for Stonnington and it is worth 10 grand, so we'll have a go at that and if she doesn't win it, well she will be older and stronger again next year.
"And also if she doesn't win at Stonnington, it doesn't really matter because there is Bendigo after that and another big Gift called Stawell, so there is plenty for her to win. Her job this year is to get herself really fit and get into a peak condition ready to have a crack at a big race."
Cooper said sisters Julia and Tiffany Boatman are also poised for a competitive season.
"I want Julia to have a crack at something earlier in the year because she is off to uni, so from about the end of February she will head off," he said.
"Anything before then we want her to win. She won the Maryborough 70-metre women's race last year and her sister (Tiffany) came third.
"This year I dare say Tiffany can win it, she has already said that's the race she wants to win."
Jake Robinson and Corey Heard are also ones to watch out for as the season rolls on.
Since coming to the Cooper stable as a long distance runner, hard work has seen Heard reinvent himself as a talent over middle distances.
"Corey Heard started off as a distance runner over 1600 metres and is now down into the 400 metres and really enjoying that," Cooper said.
"He is actually sprinting really well and he had a good result in Stawell when he came third in the final of the youth race.
"I think we have found his distance now and he is a beautiful 400 metre runner, now he just needs to learn how to run on race pace and get ready for the elbows, because you do encounter that sort of thing with no lanes.
"I've actually changed our way of running the 400, so it is a new tactic and I trialled it in Ballarat with Sarah when she ran her PB, so we know it works."
Cooper is also excited about stable new-comer, Georgia Notting, who he described as 'lightning out of the blocks'.
The veteran running coach said each runner had set goals ahead of their opening events of the year.
The Victorian Athletic League 2012/13 season begins on Sunday, November 18 with a meeting at Meadowglen (Epping) and culminates with the Australian Post Stawell Easter Gift carnival from Saturday, March 30 to Monday, April 1.
Ararat will host its meeting on Sunday, December 30 at Alexandra Oval.