During a hot summer, the Lakeville South girls’ cross-country team slogged its way through run after run after run. Trails or streets, pavement or dirt — the Cougar runners put in the miles to get ready for the 2013 season.
The key to it all, coach Jessica Just said was that all that work put in was put in as a team, running together.
“They worked hard, that’s for sure,” Just said of her team’s preseason preparation. “We’re doing a lot of pack running, and really pushing each other.”
That pack mentality is welcomed, if not necessary, in a sport in which pushing individual physical limitations is a daily focus and grind. It’s one of the things the Cougar runners pride themselves on, and it’s a big reason for four consecutive years of finishing among the top six at the Class 2A state cross-country meet.
Last season Lakeville South lost a tiebreaker for fifth place, and the Cougars had four of its six runners finish within 13 seconds of one another.
This season isn’t shaping up any differently, senior captain Megan Lubow said. Without graduating a single runner from the 2012 state meet squad, the Cougars are once among the favorites in the South Suburban Conference, and are expected to be among the best in all of Class 2A.
Lubow said the consistency year after year comes from the team’s mentality.
“We don’t go into races saying we want to win this or get certain times,” she said. “You never know what the day can bring or what a course can bring. We just want to go out there and not have any regrets. We have to push ourselves and go to our max, and make our team proud and ourselves and our coaches proud.”
Whether it’s at practice, meets or any of the many in-season social activities the team has, one of the defining characteristics of this team is the closeness.
“When you’re running together that long and you go through all of that together, it’s always going to make you closer,” Just said.
Lakeville South athletic director Neil Strader said, “They’re also just a great group of student athletes. I always let parents know that there isn’t a group I’d rather have my kids hang around with than this cross-country team. They’re very inviting, very supportive and very accepting of others. They’re a competitive and tenacious group, but it doesn’t take away from then being very good people.”
That comes from the competition itself, said senior Erin Kilbride, one of the team’s top returners.
“My favorite part is that, in a race, you run next to a teammate and you know that they’re in as much pain as you are, but just their presence there, it pushes you,” she said. “It gives me goose bumps sometimes, because your teammates have such an impact on how you run.”
Lakeville South has a number of stellar teams in its way this fall — including 2012 Class 2A runner-up Eagan and crosstown rival Lakeville North — but Just said the team is only focused on what it can control. Every race is different, the coach said, and whether it’s dealing with extreme heat of the preseason or the frigid ending of fall, the Cougars simply need to stick to the team concept.
“When you’re running a race, you can push yourself further than you ever have before, and when you cross the finish line, you can know that you got better and pushed yourself,” junior Annie Brekken said. “It’s an amazing feeling to know you got there together.”