The surroundings for Forest Park junior Stefanie Slekis are a little different as this year's cross-country season begins. Gone are five seniors who helped lead the Bruins to the Cardinal District and Northwestern Region championship and a second-place finish at the Virginia AAA meet.

But Slekis's rise to the top of the state cross-country scene appears to be as steady as ever, which was in evidence Saturday when she started the season with a win over tough regional and state competition at the Great Meadow Invitational.

"My freshman year, I was behind the [front] pack, my sophomore year I was able to stay with the pack for a while, and now I'm hoping my junior year I can . . . stay there," Slekis said.

Last season, Slekis was a second-team All-Met and first-team All-Extra. She finished eighth in the state meet, 34 seconds behind the champion, and she was second to All-Met teammate Beth Fahey at the Northwestern Region meet. Among runners returning this season, Slekis was the fourth-best finisher at the state meet last year.

"I'm very confident of her ability," said Coach John Rock, who took over the program after Dave Davis left to become athletic director at Battlefield High. "If there's a group of runners at the front and Stef's up there, the odds are [good in her favor]. She's tough, she's a competitor."

With Fahey now running at the University of Arkansas, Slekis has assumed the mantle of team leader as well. Along with senior teammate Bryce Iverson, the defending Cardinal District boys' champion who finished 10th in the state, the Bruins hope to have contenders in both races again at the state level.

On Saturday, Slekis made her case for being among the state's elite, winning the individual crown over several runners who should be competing against her at the regional and state level.

Slekis edged out Brentsville sophomore Becky Stewart to win the race, but she was equally pleased with holding off runners such as Christy Ward of James River and Kaylan Comer of Colonial Forge. Slekis showed that she could be a leader in a tough race, which for much of the way was a back-and-forth battle between Slekis and Stewart, with several other runners lurking behind.

"I'm really glad I was able to stay in front of the AAA girls," Slekis said. "I think it helped me to stay leading this time. Last year I would get in people's way, and I couldn't stay up. I wanted to get out with the fast pack and stay at the front."

Forest Park's Stefanie Slekis, right, battles Brentsville's Becky Stewart at Great Meadow in The Plains. Slekis held on to win the race.