Come winter, the room in Centennial High School with wall-to-wall red mats will return to its primary tenant, the Cougars’ wrestling team.

Cross-country runners inhabited the space Monday, stretching on the season’s first official practice date. Coach Neil Kruse sat on a folding chair in back, reviewing with delight his girls’ summer running calendars.

“We have more girls who might have been doing 200 miles last summer and now they’re doing 250 or 275,” said Kruse, a 29-year veteran and recent inductee into the state coaches association hall of fame. “We’re going to find out if it was too much.”

Optimism and concern mark Minnesota’s new era this fall. Girls’ races go from 4K (2½ miles) to 5K (3.1 miles), equal to the distance run by the boys. Minnesota had been one of a few remaining states with shorter girls’ races. Some coaches feared a switch would trigger a reduction in participation numbers.

“I was against it,” Kruse said. “We’ve had more injuries than I care for, and my fear is that we’re going to have more. But we’ve got it so now we’ll embrace it.”

Members of Centennial’s 2014 Class 2A state meet qualifying team aren’t fazed.

“I personally prefer a little longer distance,” eighth-grader Grace Johnson said. “For me, it takes a little longer to get in the zone.”

About 34 girls showed up for Monday’s practice with another three still expected, Kruse said. He estimated having three more runners on the team last year but did not link the slight drop on the longer 5K distance.

One loss was concerning, however. Eighth-grader Aria Burgess, the Cougars’ top finisher at state last fall, left the sport to play soccer. Returning runners believe they still have strength in numbers.

“I think everyone wants a challenge,” said senior Emily Danzl, second among Cougars at state with a time of 15 minutes, 56.8 seconds, “and I think we will be ready to go.”