The conversation ahead of today's Class 2 cross country state championships has to begin with the Fatima Comets and Lady Comets.
Both teams are the defending state champions entering today's races at Gans Creek Cross Country Course. The boys race is scheduled to start at 9:35 a.m. and the girls race will begin at 10:50 a.m.
"The kids are feeling pretty confident," Fatima coach Marc Bridges said. "They're about as healthy as a team can be right now, and I think they feel pretty good about heading back to state this weekend. They're just trying to keep the nerves under wrap and take care of business Saturday."
The Fatima girls have a streak of six consecutive state championships.
"With that six in a row also comes a fair amount of pressure the kids put on themselves," Bridges said. "They don't want to be the team to let that stop. What we try to focus on is to just go out and execute the best race that you can have that day, and hopefully everything will work out."
The Fatima boys have a streak of eight consecutive top-four finishes at state.
"We had a pretty young squad last year, a lot of sophomores on that squad, and now they're juniors," Bridges said. "They're better than they were last year. They're hungrier than they were last year, too."
Fatima senior Kendall Haller is the defending Class 2 individual state champion, continuing a streak of five straight individual titles for the Lady Comets. Her older sister, Brianna Haller, won Class 2 state titles from 2014-17.
Kendall Haller has not won a race this season, but she has finished no worse than fourth place in each of her last four races, including a second-place finish in districts last Saturday at Linn. Haller has finished in the top five in each of her three state races.
"She got off to sort of a slow start this year," Bridges said. "She had some injuries she was dealing with early in the season. She's healthy now, and like I said (last year), I wouldn't bet against her. She's just a very determined runner.
"I can almost guarantee one thing, and that is she will run the best that she can run."
Like Haller, senior Alexis Fischer is seeking a fourth all-state medal. Fischer, who won the Show-Me Conference individual title earlier this season, placed seventh at state in 2018. She was third behind Haller at districts.
"Alexis has had a very good second half of the season as well," Bridges said. "She's had very good races the last couple of races. I thought she ran really well at districts."
Senior Kailey Woody will run in the state meet for a fourth straight season. She finished in the top 25 as a freshman and sophomore to earn all-state honors.
"Kailey is coming off a really good track season last spring, and hopefully Kailey can step up Saturday and have a good day," Bridges said.
Sierra Sankey, a two-time state qualifier, is Fatima's fourth senior running in the girls race. The Lady Comets' lineup will be rounded out by three freshmen: Emma Bower, Sarah Groene and Carinn Karst.
"We didn't have any freshmen last year join the team," Bridges said. "It was one of those question marks coming into the season. Who's going to take this over?
"They got on the varsity squad and they're definitely making an impact."
Juniors Lucas Laux and Dawson Woehr have led the Fatima boys this season. Laux, a two-time state medalist, was ninth at state last season, while Woehr led the Comets last season at state with an eighth-place finish for his first all-state honor.
In last Saturday's district race, Woehr finished second and Laux was fourth. Earlier this season, they finished less than half a second apart in three consecutive races.
"That was not by design, that's just the nature of those two kids," Bridges said. "They're extremely competitive. At that point, Lucas was beating Dawson, and Dawson just wouldn't give it up. The result is they crossed the line neck-and-neck.
"They definitely feed off of each other."
Senior Elijah Selin is making his first state appearance today. He has finished in the top 20 in seven of Fatima's nine races this season.
"Last year, some injuries early on held him out when we had a pretty talented team last year," Bridges said. "Elijah had a great track season in the spring and he really has had a breakout cross country season this fall."
Junior Caden Haslag is looking to repeat as an all-state medalist. The two-time state qualifier finished 20th in last year's state race.
"Caden is consistent, week after week," Bridges said. "He comes out and he gives you the best performance he's got that week. He's had a really reliable season."
Junior Jake Boyce was unable to finish last week's district race, but he'll return to state this season for the first time since 2017.
"Jake has the potential to be right in that mix with our top four kids," Bridges said.
Rounding out the rest of the Comets' lineup are junior Dean Hagenhoff and senior Josh Even.
In the team standings, Bridges anticipates the Lady Comets to be challenged by Father Tolton, which trailed Fatima by four points in the district standings. Meanwhile, he expects the boys title to be a "four-way hunt" among the Comets, East Newton, Steelville and Hermann, the runner-up in Fatima's district.
Fatima ran the Gans Creek course earlier this season. Bridges said "it's not a racetrack" like some feared it could be.
"It's a beautiful course," he said. "When they have time to really let the course develop and let the grass come in real nice, it's going to be one of the premiere courses around. It's a fair course and very spectator-friendly."
Three area individuals will also compete today in the Class 2 boys cross country state championships.
New Bloomfield junior Caleb Distler is a two-time all-state medalist, finishing 20th at state in 2017 and 24th last season. He will be joined by a pair of first-time state qualifiers: Russellville junior Campbell Nichols and New Bloomfield sophomore Nathan Hinrichs.
Hinrichs came in fifth place in last Saturday's district meet at Linn, while Nichols took 11th place. Distler claimed the last state-qualifying individual spot in the district with a 15th-place finish.