Maria Hauger, one of the greatest talents ever in Minnesota high school distance running, said her career almost missed the starting gun.

As a seventh-grader, Hauger was encouraged by Kathy Carlson, then the Shakopee track and field coach, to forgo varsity tryouts and gain experience in middle school. Some young athletes might have taken the advice as a brush-off. Not Hauger. She tried out and quickly proved her value.

"She took off with our best distance kids and stayed up front the whole first day," Carlson said. "My distance coach said, 'Oh my goodness, she's for real.' You could tell watching her run that she was going to be someone who does something."

Recalled Hauger, "She gave me a uniform and was like, 'Yeah, I think you can stay.'"

Early that first season she broke the school record in the 2-mile that had stood since the 1970s. Her unrelenting pace carried over to cross-country. The senior has won an unprecedented three consecutive Class 2A state crowns. She is favored to win No. 4 when the girls' 4,000-meter race begins at 2 p.m. Saturday at St. Olaf College in Northfield.

"Maria was born with a gift," Shakopee coach Mark Neu said. "She has the drive and determination to take that gift to a level that most people would never commit to."

Though humble and unassuming by nature, Hauger acknowledged there is "probably not" a satisfactory ending that involves anything other than a fourth consecutive title.

"It's the same pressure every year," Hauger said. "Actually, this year I thought at first that with Jamie [Piepenburg of Alexandria] gone, it would be easier. But now I think it will be harder. I think Danielle [Anderson of Eagan] is there to replace Jamie. We are good competitors."

Hauger's success has drawn comparisons to Dawson-Boyd great Carrie Tollefson, winner of five consecutive state titles. Three came in Class 1A (1990, 1992, 1993) and two in Class 2A (1991, 1994).

They have spoken twice in the past year, at nationals and after Hauger won the Roy Griak Invitational in September. Hauger said Tollefson, an Olympian in 2004, was very supportive.

"She asked how many state titles I was up to now," Hauger said. "I think it's kind of cool to be compared with an Olympian."


Class 2A boys

Defending champion Stillwater returns five runners with state meet experience, led by senior Wayde Hall, the second-ranked runner in the coaches’ poll. Expect longtime rival Wayzata to make the title chase compelling.

Class 2A girls

Eagan, ranked No. 1, will battle No. 2 Wayzata, No. 3 East Ridge and Lakeville South, the 2011 runner-up that returns six runners with state meet experience. Among individuals,  the field features defending champion Hauger and seven top-10 finishers from last year: Bemidji’s Jenna Truedson (3rd), Alexandria’s Megan Hasz (4th) and Bethany Hasz (5th), Lakeville South’s Kaytlyn Larson (6th), Andover’s Nicole Heitzman (7th), Eagan’s Danielle Anderson (8th) and Wayzata’s Anna French (10th).

Class 1A boys

St. Cloud Cathedral returns to defend its 2011 title. It has six runners with state meet experience. The Crusaders were ranked second in the final coaches’ poll behind Perham.

Class 1A girls

Defending champion Clare Flanagan, a junior from Blake, captured the distance-running triple crown by winning a cross-country title last fall and adding the 1,600- and 3,200-meter crowns at the track and field state meet. She and Hauger joined the exclusive club as the 11th and 12th members last spring.

Flanagan faces competition from junior Emi Trost of Cannon Falls and senior Marisa Shady of Esko. Trost placed second last year. Shady, who took top honors in 2010, was third.