Centennial's boys' cross country team set its sights higher after a 10th-place finish at the Class 2A state meet last fall.

Fitting, then, that the Cougars follow lead runner Jonathan Keller, whose pursuit of bigger goals led him to unexpected results.

"Coach Kruse told us instead of focusing on getting to state we should focus on finishing better at state," Keller said.

Keller's older brother, Mathew, clocked a time of 16 minutes, 11.2 seconds at the 2003 state meet. Jonathan, a self-described "bum" who didn't compete in middle school sports, surpassed him earlier this fall with a time of 16:11.2 at the Milaca Mega Meet.

Keller, who led the Cougars' charge at last week's Section 5 meet, spoke with Star Tribune reporter David La Vaque about his older brother's influence on his running career and Centennial's goals for the Class 2A state meet Saturday at St. Olaf College.

Q What have been the keys to Centennial's two-year state meet qualifying run?

A There are two big things that have contributed to our team's success the past couple years. The first one is obviously Coach Kruse. He has everything planned to a T and makes sure we peak athletically at the end of the season. Also, we've had a lot of kids coming in the past couple years that have a lot of running talent. Last year we had a bunch of seniors who went to state.

Q I saw that. Sometimes senior-heavy teams go down a couple notches the next year but that hasn't happened at all.

A We were afraid of that, actually, because half the team was seniors. But we had younger guys who not only stepped up, they really filled the gaps. I think our team is the same or better than last year.

Q What role do you try to play as a senior with state meet experience?

A I'm not someone that talks a whole lot. I lead more by example. I try to give 100 percent when I do the workouts in practice and give everything I have during meets. We had an end-of-the-season meeting and a lot of people were saying they looked up to me for setting a good example.

Q I'm told you finally topped your older brother Mathew's best time from his days at Centennial. You are quite a few years apart in age but did he have anything to do with your running abilities?

A I kind of owe my entire running career to him because I didn't do any sports in middle school. I was just a bum. In eighth grade he brought me to a shoe store, bought me some shoes and forced me to join cross-country that year. I ended up liking it a lot so I came back.

When I first started running, I never thought I would be anywhere near him because growing up all I hear about was his career because he was No. 1 on his team and all that. But after a couple years, my times started dropping to where I thought I had a chance.

Q How did you let him know you took his time down?

A He was at a wedding with my parents. I called and told my dad and he started laughing. I couldn't get a hold of my brother but my parents texted me later and said they had been giving him a hard time the whole night.

David La Vaque • 612-673-7574