WARDSVILLE, Mo. - Last year, the Blair Oaks cross country team returned to familiar territory: state competition.
After an eight-year program streak of qualifying for state championships was snapped in 2012, the 2013 girls team reached the state level and finished sixth overall.
The boys missed qualifying for state by a hair. Two teams per district advance, and they tied for second, but Southern Boone's sixth runner won the tiebreaker, and Blair Oaks finished third for the fifth straight year, according to coach Marc Keys.
"That was rough," Keys said. "Don't want to do that again, but we've been consistently good. We just haven't got into that top two, and I think the kids are aware of that, and that will certainly be a goal. That'd be exciting to qualify a team on the boys side."
Blair Oaks takes the first step toward that goal today in New Haven.
The Lady Falcons lost their top two runners, Alyson Jones and Megan Graessle, to graduation. Four of the eight female runners are new to the team, and freshman Kasey Kerperin will play a big role in replacing the void. Sophomore Taylor Scott will be moving up from the No. 3 spot to help as well.
The girls team had five freshmen last season, and they return in 2014 a bit more experienced.
"Now the newbies aren't so new ... and they have experience, and they had an understanding of what to do in the summer and what to expect at practice," Keys said. "You see a big difference between freshman and sophomore year, just understanding the hard work and having more confidence in what they can do in running."
The boys will be led by Jason Otto and Nick Yaeger. Otto was all state in 2013 (17th overall), and both Otto and Yaeger qualified for state in track in the spring - Otto in the 3200 and Yaeger in the 1600.
"They train well together," Keys said. "They push each other, and they came off a really good track season, so they're going to be a lot better this year."
This is the second year the team has gone to New Haven, where competitors run a shorter distance: 2.2 miles.
"It's a good start for people to have a little bit less of a distance for our first meet and potentially hot weather at this time of year," Keys said.
The run might be short, but the drive, about 80 minutes, is Blair Oaks' longest of the year. It will be a good opportunity for the Falcons to improve their chemistry - and maybe catch a few winks, too.
"It's just the shared misery of getting up early and the long bus ride," Keys said. "That's when you do most of your bonding on those rides and sleeping and making fun of people and things like that."
The Falcons compete in Class 2,District 4. It includes Russellville and Fatima, which swept the Class 1 and 2 titles last year, respectively, and Linn, which was the second-place Class 1 boys team in 2013.
"It'll be a dogfight," Keys said. "All the good teams in central Missouri will be in our Class 2 district this year for cross country."
Keys believes his boys team can compete. Russellville, Linn and Fatima all lost two or three of their top runners, while the Falcons only lost their third runner to graduation.
The girls are hoping to improve upon last year's success and finish in the top four.
"I think our girls are certainly looking to do as well as they did last year, and our boys, if we can make it out of our district, I think we can be very competitive at the state level," Keys said. "I think having Linn and Fatima and Russellville (in our division), probably almost seeing them every weekend, is going to make us better, and it's going to make them better, too."