Mental and emotional support mean a lot to runners. Sometimes they'll wake up and fail to find a rhythm, get winded more quickly -- or just feel physically depleted. Words of encouragement can act as fuel.

Just ask Annie Brekken, a sophomore cross-country star at Lakeville South, where a close-knit program is built around teamwork and camaraderie. If one person is having a tough day, the entire squad -- including the middle school team and the boys' teams -- will rally behind her.

"It means the world for people around you to boost you up," said Brekken, who finished 17th at last fall's Class 2A state meet, helping lead the Cougars to a second-place finish. "So much of running is mental. If you are having a bad day, having someone come up to you and tell you that you can do it changes your mental attitude."

The girls are brimming with positive energy -- and why wouldn't they be? Lakeville South has inched up one spot at the state meet in each of the past three years, from a fourth-place finish in 2009 to third in 2010 and second last season.

The pattern is a favorable one. Pollsters in the coaches association's preseason rankings certainly expressed confidence in the Cougars, marking them as the No. 1 team. The prognostication comes with good reason. The state runners-up return eight of their top nine runners, including six all-conference performers who competed at the state meet -- Brekken, Kaytlyn Larson, Megan Lubow, Jenny Machaj, Erin Kilbride and Caraline Slattery.

Much of that success can be attributed to Jessica Just, the only cross-country head coach Lakeville South has known in its eight-year existence. She began integrating the middle school team with the high school squad, which also incidentally is a co-ed co-op with the boys' teams. It all provides an interactive and encouraging, mentor-like system to help foster interest and, ultimately, performance.

Kilbride, a junior captain, said it felt like it was yesterday when she joined the program. She looked up to the upperclassmen and pushed herself to try and keep up with and learn from them.

"That's why I am where I am today," Kilbride said.

The youngsters are included in everything, from training to pasta dinners and everything in between. Every week coaches assign a couple of high school runners to pair up with each middle-schooler.

"That was part of our philosophy and our goals as a program from the start, just to grow our younger runners and be real inclusive and make it a big family atmosphere," Just said.

It's proven an effective tactic. The Cougars won every meet last year before finishing second at the Class 2A state meet. That, of course, creates high expectations.

"There are a lot of great teams in our conference, section and throughout the state," Just said. "We look forward to the challenge of competition and will give our best effort in all our races, but the focus is to be in a position to be successful at the end of the season meets."

No matter what the final result, Kilbride and the Cougars echo the principles that have turned this program into a family.

"We're just going to go out there and make our team proud, make our coaches proud, make ourselves proud," Kilbride said. "We're never really thinking about winning -- just doing it for our team."