Three years ago, members of the first-year boys cross country program Saxony Lutheran studied pictures of the state course at the Oak Hills Golf Center in Jefferson City, Mo., they took off the back of a T-shirt.
Now, a fourth-place trophy and back-to-back state titles later, the Crusaders feel like home at the course where they will try to wrap up their third consecutive title today.
"It's amazing, going from knowing nothing and now you feel like it's almost home up there," senior Peter Winningham said. "We've really come a long way since that first year."
Saxony Lutheran returned three all-state runners from last year's squad, and four runners who ran at the state meet. Winningham and Class 1 runner-up Brandon Etzold are the lone seniors. Junior Max Wieser also finished all-state last year. The other four runners are all sophomores.
"The nice thing is we've got some experienced kids," Saxony coach Larry Cleair said. "Not only are they experienced at the state meet, but they've done well at the state meet. They can pass that on to the next kids and help Ross Gage, Bryant Steffens and Sam Kluesner.
"They can help them with their nervousness and their confidence in their preparation. That way we can go to state much more relaxed because we have that confidence."
Last year, the Crusaders were head-and-shoulders above the field. Saxony finished with 61 points, well ahead of West Platte's 120. The Crusaders lost three seniors from last year's squad, but returned three of their top four runners.
This year, Saxony again ran away with the title at Class 1 District 1, which was one of the rare exclusively small-school races Saxony competed in this season. Saxony competed against defending Class 2 state champion Notre Dame on several occasions and ran in the Hancock Invitational.
"We ran a bunch of big meets," Etzold said. "State's one of the easier races we'll run compared to Hancock. It's still hard, but nothing like Potosi."
Facing big-school competition may not always make for high individual finishes for Saxony's runners, but it keeps them hungry to improve over the course of the season.
"It's nice getting a lot of competition," Etzold said. "It kind of humbles you. It's fun running with guys like that."
Etzold, a three-time all-state runner, still is in search of his first cross country individual title, though he won the 800- and 1,600-meter runs and was part of Saxony's two relay wins during last spring's Class 1 state track meet.
His time in last year's state cross country meet was nearly 28 seconds faster than the next time posted by a returning runner. That puts Etzold in position to capture first place.
"It's a goal, and I've had to work pretty hard to get to it," Etzold said. "The team title is all our first priority. The individual title has been a goal for a couple years now."
If the Crusaders can bring home the title, they will be the second straight Class 1 squad to three-peat. West Platte had won the three previous titles. Former district opponent Valley Park joins Lone Jack, Alton and Fair Play as Saxony's toughest competition this time around.
"We know we have to run pretty good, since everyone's gunning for us," Wieser said. "They're going to try to run their best, so we have to do our best. If we run the race like we want to we should do pretty good."
With four sophomores -- Andrew Etzold, who ran at the state meet as a freshman, Steffens, Kluesner and Gage -- Saxony Lutheran's success should continue beyond this season.
"We've had some excellent performances from sophomores," Cleair said. "We're still a young team. Bryant Steffens stepped up at the district meet and had a great meet. Ross Gage has had a nice season, and Andrew Etzold was top 10 at district and wasn't even one of our scorers. If we have a top runner who has a bad day, we have someone who can step into the break and fill the gap."
While the future looks bright for the Crusaders, Saxony is making sure to secure title No. 3 before it looks ahead.
"We're still looking to see how far we can go in a row, but every year's different," Wieser said.
Area squads swept all four state berths for teams -- two boys and two girls -- in Class 1 District 1. Oak Ridge will send its boys team, and Meadow Heights and Delta will compete on the girls side.
Defending Class 2 state champion Notre Dame will not get a chance to defend its title after moving up to Class 3, but the Bulldogs will make the trip to the state meet in search of a fourth straight top-four finish. Logan Davis and Neil Kanneberg both return after all-state performances last season.
Notre Dame's state-title hopes are slim with the presence of Potosi in Class 3. The Trojans, who walked away with the Class 3 state title last year, are nationally ranked and considered the top squad in the state.
The Bulldogs finished second behind Potosi in District 1. Jonathan Ramsey, is the lone senior heading to state for the Bulldogs, and Ramsey, Richie Bohn and Dillon Klaffer are also returning to the state meet. Ben Beussink and Wynn McClellan round out Notre Dame's squad.
Central sophomore Brittany Moreland is the other returning all-state runner from the area competing today.