August 26, 2003 11:00 pm

The Eastern cross country women had one of their most successful years ever last season, finishing seventh in the nation.

This year, it's a team that has a lot of potential, but also "has a lot of question marks," according to coach Ben Welch.

Welch said the biggest challenge facing the Eastern women is a spate of injuries suffered by several of the runners.

"There's a lot of injuries. A lot of pre-existing injuries," he said. "The women could be a top-20 team ... if we're healthy."

The team does return its two best runners from last year, Kelsey Jones (of Seward, Alaska) and Jessyca Barker (of La Grande). Jones finished 24th at the NAIA championships in Wisconsin, while Barker finished 27th.

Jones is confident that the team will come around well as the season progresses. "I'm really excited. I don't know what shape the girls are in, but I bet by the end of the year we'll be surprising people," she said.

Barker is looking forward to the season, but said, "it's kind of weird because all the older people left. Everyone's new. We don't know where everyone's at."

One of the newcomers to the team is Union native Stephanie Colkitt. Colkitt was a state champion at Union, and she transferred to EOU after a year at Oregon State. Another newcomer to the team is Lauren Plymire.

Rian Finney returns to this year's team and is expected to be a No. 5 runner, said Welch.