Unlike the past two years, the two-time defending state champion Stillwater boys’ cross country team enters the Class AA state meet away from the spotlight as the No. 1-ranked team.
Wayzata carries that burden this time around after defeating the Ponies in races at Marshfield and Rochester early in the season and second-ranked Edina joins the mix for what is considered a three-team chase for the title. Stillwater has not competed against the Hornets this season.
“We’re going down there to win it. That’s what we’ve been training for since June and that’s the way we approach all of our meets,” Ponies coach Scott Christensen said. “It’s a little different than expecting to win or maybe it’s winning or nothing, but we make no apologies for wanting to win and that’s what we’re trying to do.
“I think it’s realistic. We’ve been beaten twice by them, but it happens all the time in sports. Seasons are long. We got beat on Aug. 31 pretty badly and we left that meet discouraged and bewildered, but we picked ourselves up and I’m anxious to see what kind of progress we’ve made, and maybe it will be enough.”
Stillwater graduated four of the seven runners from its state lineup a year ago, including individual state champion Wayde Hall, with Bailey Hesse-Withbroe and Eli Krahn finishing in the third and fourth sports for the Ponies.
The Ponies have faced some adversity this season with Krahn battling through injuries and Tayler Aarness — the lone senior in Stillwater’s lineup — also not 100 percent healthy entering Saturday’s race. Christensen made sure the team did not dwell on the apparent loss of Krahn and even challenged his team while competing with just five runners at Faribault.
“With Eli out and running five at Faribault on our varsity instead of seven, it’s kind of been all over the place but it’s really settled down the past two meets and I feel like that’s really brought out the best in everyone getting back to a normal situation going,” Hesse-Withbroe said.
Christensen was among the few who remained confident in the Ponies even when it was expected Krahn would miss the rest of the season and his return for the conference meet has bolstered the team down the stretch.
“Did I think we could win six weeks ago without Eli, yes I did,” Christensen said. “He certainly gives us a lot more options, especially up front. He gives us a leader up front that the kids obviously rely on and have complete trust in. He’ll add to what we’re trying to do.”
Krahn was Stillwater’s second runner at the Section 4AA meet, where the Ponies scored 24 points, and finished third overall behind Hesse-Withbroe and just in front of Allen-Michael Burback, who has enjoyed a late-season surge.
“Definitely, we’re a lot more confident than we were a month ago with (Krahn) back,” Hesse-Withbroe said. “That’s just another guy that’s going to be battling for those positions and taking points away from (Wayzata). Just having him back has been a boost and I think we’ve shown ourselves that we’re a lot closer to Wayzata than we were at the beginning of the season and it’s going to be a good battle.”
Aarness and sophomore Sam Hanson will be important factors on Saturday as the Ponies try to win their sixth state title since 1995 and match the three in a row achieved with titles added in 1996 and 1997.
“It’s going to depend on the fourth runner of each team. Whoever has the best fourth runner is going to win the meet,” Christensen said. “The first guy is virtually meaningless in a meet like this. It’s how your fourth guy does. One of the reasons we won by so much last year was that our fourth guy was better than everybody’s third guy in the state, that’s the key. If our pack falls apart we’re screwed. Look for the No. 4 kid from each team, that’s what is going to be what’s going on in the team competition.
“We’ve had great things happen, we’ve had bad things happen,” Christensen said. “We were in Wayzata’s spot in 1998, clearly the favorite, and we came in third. You just never know, but you have to have a good enough team to have a shot at it.”
In addition to cross country, the Ponies have won two of the past three state titles in track and field and this year’s crew wants to build on those successes.
“I think we want to go in and try to win it again,” Hesse-Withbroe said. “It’s going to be tough, but I think the past two meets we’ve really shown we’re not going to go down without a fight and we’re going to really try hard and defend that title. We want to prove ourselves and we want to show everyone that we can beat Wayzata. It’s two powerhouses going together. It’s not like we’re an underdog story, just two powerhouses going at it. We’re really looking forward to Saturday.”