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story.lead_photo.caption Blake Conrad (left) is one of the top returning runners for the Jefferson City Jays this season. Photo by Sally Ince / News Tribune.

The Jefferson City Jays cross country team has qualified for the Class 4 state cross country championships five consecutive years.

Getting there hasn't been too difficult. Leaving with a trophy has been.

The Jays came within 36 points of doing so last year for the first time since 1998, thanks to five runners placing in the top 70, including four of them being within 7 seconds of each other.

It's that type of pack racing the Jays have come accustomed to and could help them break into the top four at come November at Gans Creek in Columbia, the new site of the state meet.

"That's what they have to be," Jefferson City cross country coach Brett Phillips as the Jays and Lady Jays begin their season today in the Jim Marshall Invitational at Cole County Park.

The Jays return four from last year's state team, including seniors Dawson Schulte, Deaken Walker and Blake Conrad, and sophomore Tommy Roehl.

Leading the group right now is Conrad, who placed 70th at state last season, followed by Walker and Schulte.

Blaine Smallwood, a senior, has jumped into the fourth spot.

"If he's not our most improved guys he's right there," Phillips said of Smallwood. "He'll fit in and make us a good pack team with the top five."

Rounding out the varsity squad are Roehl, senior Will Roehl and junior Andrew Nield.

"To be successful as a team, you've got to have a pretty good spread between one and five," Phillips said. "And we feel like we're very, very strong at four and five. And it's not to say those those top three kids aren't doing well, but our four and five are right there. I think that we have as good a four and five as anybody."

There could be some movement with the sixth and seventh spots with senior Pat Malone working to earn a varsity position.

"He could flip-flop with these guys any time and I'm sure you probably will," Phillips said.

Also in that mix are juniors Henry Stier and Jimmy Knoll, and senior Alex Scott.

"They're all running like varsity runners right now," Phillips said. "That's a strength of ours is depth on the boys side."

The girls team isn't as deep, but there's been progress with the Lady Jays during preseason practice.

"I'd say I'd put them ahead of where I projected them to be," Phillips said

The Lady Jays return its state runner from last season in Jackie Hensley, who finished 119th.

"She's definitely the No. 1 kid," Phillips said. "And I feel like she's about where she needs to be. And I think she's kind of working her way up to where she could be a state qualifier again and higher up in the state field."

Fellow seniors Maddie Showers, Saneya Winters and Michelle Grant lead the pack for the Lady Jays.

"The way they seem to be approaching things, the leadership and the little things that the kids are saying to one another, sort of the way they're sticking together, is impressing me right now," Phillips said. "And I'm pleased with that progress because we do have new people in there that are in leadership roles. We're an older team but we are not experienced."

Taking up the remaining varsity spots are junior Chasity Pendleton, sophomore Ellie Plume and freshman Josie Starr.

This group is aiming to be the first Lady Jays team to qualify for state since they placed 16th in 2015.

"We talk about it every single day," Phillips said. "That's our goal. Our goal is we back at the state meet. We feel like it's not acceptable. We have not been there. It's irritating to me that we haven't been able to get our girls to state meet for three years. I don't have any intention of making that four."

Today's boys race begins at 9 a.m. with the girls following at 9:30 a.m.

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