Three of the state's largest and most competitive regular-season cross-country meets take place on the next two Saturdays: the Milaca Mega Meet and Apple Valley's Eagle Invitational on Sept. 22, and the Roy Griak Invitational on Sept. 29. Three of the metro area's top runners -- Danielle Anderson of Eagan, Nicole Heitzman of Andover and Joe Klecker of Hopkins -- are primed for the challenge.

Danielle Anderson, Eagan

The Milaca Mega Meet, Apple Valley Eagle Invitational and Roy Griak Invitational all fell on the same Saturday last season. Anderson and her Wildcats teammates competed at the Griak, taking her out of a comfort zone of sorts.

"I've always run better times at the Eagle invite," said Anderson, a senior who ran at the Eagle Invitational as a freshman and sophomore.

Runners offer differing views on hilly courses such as the Eagle Invitational. Anderson takes the high road.

"We're a pretty strong team on the hills," she said. "I think of them as an advantage."

Eagan, which lost only one of the seven runners who helped the Wildcats place ninth at state last season, entered this week ranked No. 1 in Class 2A.

Anderson also has established herself among the state's top distance runners, regardless of terrain. Last fall she placed seventh at the Class 2A state cross country meet last fall. In June, she rose to second in the 3,200-meter race at the state track and field meet.

She is excited to run against fellow senior Maria Hauger of Shakopee, a three-time cross-country state champion, at the Eagle Invitational.

"I get faster when she's around," Anderson said. "Being on the same course as her will determine where I'm at."

Nicole Heitzman, Andover

Winning the Milaca Mega Meet last season propelled Heitzman to victories at the Northwest Suburban Conference and Class 2A, Section 7 meet en route to a seventh-place finish at state.

But a bad cold on top of chronic asthma kept Heitzman off her feet last week. She plans to run at Milaca, though this time she'll be less a conqueror than a runner making a comeback.

"It's frustrating when you compare last year to this year," said Heitzman, who most recently competed Sept. 6. She placed fifth at the Bluejacket Invitational. "My expectations for this race aren't as high as last year but I'm hoping I'll be at full strength by the end of the year."

She typically shines at the state meet. Her running resume boasts three consecutive top-seven finishes at the state meet, including a fourth-place mark as a sophomore.

Though not one to make excuses, Heitzman seldom runs at full strength. Her asthma forces her to use an inhaler before races. When her condition flares, Heitzman perseveres through pains in her chest while struggling to catch her breath.

She's mustering all her determination for the Milaca race.

"I love the course," she said. "It'll be a little nerve-wracking but I'll take it down."

Joe Klecker, Hopkins

Without question, Klecker said, his best race as a freshman last year was the Griak Invitational. It wasn't about time or place -- just persistence.

As Klecker tells it: "I got pushed off the course and knocked to the ground pretty hard. I know who did it. It was a senior who graduated. It was pretty intentional; he had a lot of problems. At first I didn't want to get up because it was such a shock. When I got up I sprinted ahead and tried to get back in the race."

The best revenge, Klecker decided, was running well. He passed up the senior and never looked back.

"He finished about three minutes behind me," Klecker said.

He went on to place 54th at the state meet in November, fourth among freshmen. Older brother John finished ninth.

Joe Klecker entered this week ranked fifth among Class 2A runners. Measuring himself against last season's results, Klecker can see improvement.

He placed third at the St. Olaf High School Showcase on Aug. 31, running the same course as the 2011 state meet almost 14 seconds faster. He won the Hopkins Bauman/Rovn Invitational on Sept. 6 at Gale Woods Farm in Minnetrista in a time of 15 minutes, 56.30 seconds to smash his time from a year ago by almost 1 1/2 minutes.

David La Vaque • 612-673-7574