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In it to win it

NORTHFIELD--When discussing last year's Class AA girls cross country state finals, Willmar head coach Jerry Popp doesn't make any attempt to hide his disappointment in the way his team performed.

NORTHFIELD-When discussing last year's Class AA girls cross country state finals, Willmar head coach Jerry Popp doesn't make any attempt to hide his disappointment in the way his team performed.

"Last year was, without a doubt, the worst team race we ran all year," Popp said of the Cardinals' third-place, 119-point performance. "I think we had girls that didn't follow the race plan at all. Two-hundred meters into the race, we were already out of the picture."

With more than enough talent to return to the Class AA meet at 2 p.m. Saturday at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Popp said it was crucial for his runners to be "a lot more dialed in" mentally this season.

Fortunately, the coach says they've been up to the challenge and the results back that up.

The Cardinals punctuated an undefeated regular season with a dominant Section 8AA performance. Their 21-point score was 80 points ahead of runner-up Brainerd.

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A veteran, senior-heavy group of runners is the primary reason for the improved mental approach to races, Popp said.

Sophie Schmitz, Jess Hanson and Kayla Rudie-who took first, second and third at this year's section race-are all seniors, as is regular contributor Savannah Anez.

No matter what happens Saturday, it's a safe bet that Willmar will not win in the dominant fashion it's grown accustomed to.

Standing between the Cardinals and their first title is top-ranked Edina, which won last year's state championship with 57 points. The Hornets come from Section 6AA, where their score of 27 was 47 points better than second-place Minnetonka.

How good is this Edina team? Popp says he's spoken with coaches who "think they might be the best team in state history," a statement he didn't fully dispute.

But even though they're taking on a serious challenge, Popp certainly isn't asking his girls to adopt an "it's an honor just to be there" mindset.

"We're doing down there thinking we can compete with (Edina)," he said. "That's why we're getting on the bus."

Beginners luck?

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Of all the individuals competing in Saturday's Class A race, few likely took a more surprising route to get there than Central Minnesota Christian School's Matthew Van Eps.

A former soccer player, Van Eps decided he wanted a change of pace in his final year of high school, a move that has paid big dividends.

The first-year runner proved he belonged in the field for the Class A race, which begins at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Olaf, by running a first-place time of 16:19.40 in last week's 6A section race.

Van Eps, who runs track in the spring, said his background in that sport played a role in his decision to run cross country.

But he admits surprise at his progress since his track experience, which mostly consists of sprints and shorter races, didn't exactly seem like a prelude to distance-running success.

"I wasn't expecting to do quite this well."

Van Eps isn't expecting to be intimidated when going up against the state's best.

"Looking at the (preliminary) times, it looks like I should be running somewhere towards the front," he said. "I'm just hoping to do my best."

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