Last spring, the Colby College women’s 4×400 relay team finished just over a second from a national championship. With three-quarters of the team back, the Mules are a contender for the title again.

“The goal is to get into the top 16 (nationally), and then see what damage we can do,” Colby women’s track and field coach Deb Aitken said

Emily Doyle, Frances Onyilagha and Emily Tolman return to the team. First-year runner Michaela Athanasopoulos replaces Brittney Bell, who graduated.

First, the quartet will compete on Saturday in the NCAA Division III indoor championships, in Lincoln, Neb. The Mules are seeded 10th of 12 teams, and will run in the final event of the day, at 6:20 p.m.

It’s uncommon for a relay team to return almost entirely intact, Aitken said.

“It’s rare for us. Last year was the first time we’ve sent a relay team to nationals,” Aitken said

Last year, the team set a school record in the outdoor 4×400 relay, and placed second behind Wisconsin-LaCrosse, with a time of three minutes, 44.74 seconds.

At the ECAC championships earlier this month in Boston, the team won with a time of 3:53.80. The team’s best time of the season came at the Open New England Championship, where the Mules ran 3:52.90 to take eighth place. Wheaton and Williams were the only Division III teams to finish ahead of Colby that day.

At outdoor nationals last year, Doyle was the lead runner, followed by Onyilagha, Tolman and Bell. This year, Aitken mixed up the order a little. Doyle still leads off, and is followed by the newcomer Athanasopoulos. Tolman still runs the third leg, with Onyilagha the anchor.

“Frannie, she’s just clearly stepped it up,” Aitken said of Onyilagha.

This group didn’t come together until around the middle of the indoor season, Aitken said. After trying a few combinations, it was apparent Athanasopoulos had the skill to replace the graduated Bell.

“It kind of came together pretty quickly,” Aitken said. “We think it’s the best group for us.”

The top eight teams earn All-America status. Seeded 10th, the Mules know they’ll have to work hard to move up. There’s not much time to rest before the outdoor season, which begins on Monday.

“We have to run faster than we’ve run all season to move up,” Aitken said. “I think our four runners are ready to do that.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242 tlazarczyk@centralmaine.com Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM