When the Stillwater boys' cross-country team finished seventh and fifth, respectively, at the past two state meets, head coach Scott Christensen and the Ponies must have been thrilled, right?


"I told them last year, getting seventh in the state cross-country meet, for a lot of teams, they'd have a parade for you back at school, a pep fest -- that sort of thing," said Christensen, now in his 30th year at Stillwater. "For this program, we didn't accomplish what we wanted to do. We failed at it."

Stillwater's finished top five in state in 10 of the past 16 years. The Ponies have qualified for the state meet in 18 of the past 20. Although the Ponies were young, their lower-than-expected finishes didn't sit well with anyone.

"It's not making it to state that's a big deal -- it's doing well at it," senior Tom Linner said. "To have two consecutive years of letdowns is pretty tough, but I think it's made us better in the long term. We had such a great season, but then the ending leaves such a bad taste in your mouth."

They are working to eliminate that taste this year. With six of last year's seven cross-country state runners back in the fold, the coaches association has ranked the Ponies No. 1. Christensen didn't vote for Stillwater to be the top dog, but he believes the athletes' performance last spring caught everyone's attention. The Ponies' top five runners helped the track team to a state championship -- signaling progress, growth and confidence.

"They picked up a little experience and figured out what it takes to win a state title," Christensen said.

Junior Wayde Hall led off the 4x800 relay team, which finished fourth at the state track meet last spring. He's been the top guy for Stillwater in most recent meets, and has garnered a No. 4 individual state ranking. Linner finished 13th overall in the cross-country state meet last fall, and fourth in the state track 800 last spring. Linner has also been in two state cross-country meets and is the defending Suburban East Conference champion. He holds the No. 6 individual ranking.

Eric Colvin, a junior, has also made big strides since last fall. He was the Class 2A Section 4 champion in the 3,200 last spring. Taylor Arness has already been in a pair of state cross-country meets, and he's only a sophomore. Junior Sean Bjork ran the third leg of the 4x800 track relay. The team hopes that experience adds up.

"Our last two state meets have been rather forgettable for us. I hope this team is able to turn the corner," Christensen said. "I think they've been in enough big races now, and they've seen the highs and the lows."

There's hope the track state championship can propel them back inside the top five come November.

"We have some momentum now," Linner said. "That state track meet where our distance guys all performed to their highest ability, I think that really helped because we can just go in here and do some damage."