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story.lead_photo.caption Blake Conrad of Jefferson City is a three-time state qualifier. Photo by News Tribune / News Tribune.

Winning a state trophy hasn't been in the cards for the Jefferson City Jays cross country team for more than two decades.

But for the past few years, the Jays have been building closer and closer to breaking through into the top four.

They were eighth in 2016, 13th in 2017 and seventh last year. One of this year's runners was on all of those teams. Two more have run for two of those state-qualifying teams. Another, a sophomore, made his state debut last year.

This year's group of six seniors and a sophomore is ready to chase the Jays' first team trophy since finishing fourth in 1998.

"That's one reason things go pretty smooth," Jefferson City coach Brett Phillips said of the experience. "That's one reason workouts are implemented well. The guys are experienced and they tend to be more focused and they're mature."

The Jays will take off from the starting line at 12:05 p.m. today at Gans Creek Cross Country Course in Columbia.

Last Saturday in Chesterfield, Jefferson City won its first sectional championship since 2005. Phillips noted it surprised a lot of the competition.

"We won it with a lot more depth in the race than the field and we won it over teams ranked ahead of us," Phillips said. "If a month ago someone told you that Jeff City would have won Sectional 2, there would have been a bunch of people laughing at you on Twitter on that one because we weren't supposed to be able to compete with those teams, but obviously we did."

The Jays will hope to be in close competition today against the other sectional champions: St. Louis University High, Raymore-Peculiar and Rock Bridge.

The sectional runners-up were Kirkwood, Lafayette: Wildwood, Rockhurst and Liberty.

Phillips said SLUH might be the team to beat.

To capture their sectional title by 32 points, the Jays had five runners finish in the top 28.

Leading the way in the postseason has been sophomore Tommy Roehl, who placed second in the district meet and sixth last week.

"He's developing into our No. 1, though we're pretty close," Phillips said.

Deaken Walker and Blake Conrad, each making their third state appearance, were second and third among the Jays at sectionals.

Pat Malone and Dawson Schulte also scored for Jefferson City last week.

Schulte is running in his fourth state meet today.

"Not a lot of boys can pull that off in a Class 4 program that generally has a lot of kids," Phillips said. "That's a real significant achievement."

Malone has split time between JV and varsity this season, but placed fifth at Potosi, 16th at Borgia, 15th at districts and 25th at sectionals to keep a varsity spot.

"He ran an awesome race at sectionals, ran the best race he's ever run," Phillips said.

Blaine Smallwood and Will Roehl round out the Jays competing this afternoon.

"We seem to be improving at the rate we need to right now," Phillips said. "We seem to be racing better right now. And in fairness, we didn't run what we would consider a perfect race (at sectional), that's for sure. Just with our goals and benchmarks we use internally, you ask our boys and they're not going to say that we just knocked that completely out of the park. We feel like we can be a lot better than that."

The difference between Roehl and Schulte last week was about 36 seconds.

The plan today is to have at least one runner in an all-state spot (top 25) with the fifth-best time within 30 seconds of the team's top time.

"We generally have a pretty good pack time," Phillips said. "I want to get it under 30 seconds. If you get our first guy in the top 25, and we believe we'll have him there, we pack 25 seconds on that I think we're going to be close. I think we'll be dangerous."

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