The Class A field in Northland cross-country running is deep and getting better. As a result, Esko coach Jerimy Hallsten is in a bit of an unusual situation.
"It's the first time in my six years here that I have a team that doesn't really have major expectations," he said. That doesn't mean, though, that the Eskomos don't have goals.
"Our goals are the same every year," Hallsten said. "We want to win our conference and finish in the top two in the section to go to state. But that's going to be more challenging than ever this season."
Hallsten's top boys are seniors Luke Bourgeault, Justin Halling, Sam Rengo, who reached state last year, and Will Schmitz.
The girls' roster of top runners includes no seniors and only one junior, Morgan Peterson. Five sophomores and three freshmen make up the balance of the expected varsity roster.
That isn't as big an issue in girls cross-country as it might be on the boys team. Last year, there were no seniors in the state's top 10 Class A girls and only two juniors, with three seventh-graders and an eighth-grader finishing in the top 11.
That said, Esko has a road ahead if they want to reach their goals.
"We're rebuilding," Hallsten said. "Our numbers are down a little bit but we have dedicated athletes who want to improve. They have a tradition to uphold and we know they will give it their best."
Hallsten notes that Greenway-Nashwauk-Keewatin will be an odds-on favorite in the boys' competition with sophomore phenom Geno Uhrbom, who finished third in the state as a freshman last year, along with North Shore, which finished fourth as a team and placed two runners in the top 20 individually.
North Shore also reached the state in the girls team competition, along with Proctor in representation of Section 7A.
"North Shore came out of nowhere and had a really good team," Hallsten said. "They have most of that team back, so they'll be tough as well."
Cromwell-Wright welcomes back junior Cameron Dickey, who reached state as a sophomore last fall, while a good Moose Lake-Willow River team has to contemplate life without the graduated Ethan Olson, who finished 11th at state last year.
But for Hallsten, the added competition both locally and from the northern part of the section is a decidedly good thing.
"Coaches have done a good job building up their numbers on their teams and in making the sport better and more competitive here," Hallsten said. "That is good for everyone."
But even if the team can't meet its goals, Hallsten said individual goals are more than reachable.
"What I want for our kids is that they give their best effort," he said. "We know they work hard, but if they give everything when they run, then they will know they went as hard as they possibly could. You can't fault them for that and if they improve along the way, that's even better."