It took him a while to come around to the idea but, slowly, senior Colin VanDussen has started to believe.

So, too. have his teammates on the Lakeville North boys’ cross-country team.

It’s hard to blame VanDussen for being hesitant. In 2014 the Panthers didn’t make it to the state meet, something they refer to now as a “huge disappointment.” With graduation taking a toll on the roster and only a handful of full-time varsity runners back for 2015, it looked as though a redemptive return to the Class 2A state meet was a long shot.

But then the season started, and the Panthers started surprising. They finished second at Rosemount’s Irish Invitational on Sept. 4. They finished second again the next week, behind only fourth-ranked Stillwater, at a meet in Faribault. The Panthers then won their own event, the AppleJack Invite, on Sept. 17.

At a time trial race Sept. 9, each of the Panthers’ top seven runners ran a faster time than Lakeville North’s No. 1 runner did at the 2014 time trial race.

Lakeville North is No. 7 in the latest coaches’ poll.

“It’s been pretty crazy,” said VanDussen, a co-captain with fellow senior Jacob Beckstrom. “I think at that first meet, we finished only behind Eden Prairie, and we were kind of thinking, ‘Wow, maybe we can actually be pretty good.’ Then it just kept going. I guess we’re surprising a lot of people, but we put a lot of work in. If they saw our summer, maybe they wouldn’t be as surprised.”

The 400-mile club

Panther coach Zach Haskins knew there would be a steep learning curve for his 2015 squad, despite the number of seniors on the team. The second-year coach decided to offer up a challenge.

“I told them heading into summer that, for cross-country, if they could run x amount of miles, we’d get some t-shirts made up for them,” he said. “It was just a little, funny thing. But the idea was more just to get them going and thinking about it, and focusing on the quality of miles they were running.”

Apparently, they didn’t need much of a push. Haskins said Beckstrom and VanDussen organized a running schedule with their teammates, and the Panthers hit the trails — hard. The team ran once per day, Monday through Friday, and twice on Saturdays.

The Panthers logged their miles from June 15 to Aug. 22. The team’s top seven runners collectively ran more than 2,500 miles. Connor Bach led the way with more than 500 miles. Both captains topped 460.

The results were quick. For example, Bach went from running in the middle of the Panthers’ JV team last year to being the varsity’s third runner this fall.

“[The] hard work just shows in our depth,” VanDussen said. “We put in the work, and it was one of the best summers we’ve had.”

Distancing themselves

The team has only improved and gotten stronger as the season has gone on, Haskins said. He feels the team’s runners are beginning to peak at the right time, making season-long goals — a section title, a high finish at state — seem attainable now.

If the Panthers return to the state meet, though, they won’t see it as redemption for last year. It’s a new team, VanDussen said, one that has earned the right to be judged by its own accomplisments.

“We have a rule on our team that we can’t talk about state,” he said. “We want to focus on what we have coming up, and don’t want to look down the road. But, yeah, this is the best team I’ve been on in four years on the team. We definitely believe in ourselves.”