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Stillwater cross-country standout Wayde Hill (center, in a 2011 race) has been ranked among the state’s top runners all season. Photo provided by Brad Dixon

When it comes to athletics, there's nothing more heartbreaking than a season-ending loss. Or sometimes, in the case of Stillwater boys' cross-country, a season-beginning defeat.

The Class 2A defending champion Ponies began their title defense against Wayzata on Sept. 1, and the Trojans prevailed by one point.

"We were devastated. There's no doubt about it," Stillwater coach Scott Christensen said. "Especially the top seven were perplexed, devastated and a bunch of different things. It probably took the kids six or seven days to really start feeling good about themselves again."

Senior Wayde Hall was one of those runners.

"Definitely a lot of heartache," Hall said. "Really frustrating."

Christensen knows the opening loss had the effect of a wake-up call on the team, but he won't give it credit for the team's success ever since.

"I think you learn more by winning than you do by losing," Christensen said. "But you had to make the best of the situation."

Since then, Stillwater has excelled. Under Christensen's tutelage, the Ponies haven't changed their season schedule for 15 years. A look at the team's performance, from year to year on each of the same courses against each of the same teams, shows an impressive uptick this season. Even compared to last year's state championship team, the current group of Ponies has been registering times -- about 18 to 20 seconds faster per racer -- since the first meet.

Christensen alone coaches the team, which has 72 boys from ninth to 12th grade. It includes 34 from last year's state championship team, including four of the top runners who ran in the final meet. They've held a spot in Marc Bloom's national rankings on runnerspace.com all season. Christensen said there might have been a championship hangover heading into this fall, but it has since worn off.

"I think maybe we all forgot how much work it took last year to do what we did," Christensen said. "But I've been very, very happy with the last month. Couldn't be happier with it. I think we've been a team all headed in the same direction."

Hall, the preseason Class 2A No. 1-ranked runner, has been battling with Cretin-Derham Hall's Kevin Docherty and Richfield's Obsa Ali for the top individual ranking. Last Saturday he beat Docherty, a longtime racing foe, by one second in the Alexandria Meet of Lions while the rest of the Ponies combined for a dominating team victory to hold on to their top state ranking. Hall also registered a school-record 5,000-meter time at 15 minutes and 26 seconds in the annual intrasquad meet.

He believes the team experience is playing a large role.

"Last year we learned the habits and found out what it took to get to where we were," Hall said. "We've carried that over into this year and have passed it on to the new guys."

Further powering the Ponies are seniors Eric Colvin and Sean Bjork. Freshman Eli Krahn has broken all of the school's ninth-grade records. Sophomore Bailey Hesse-Withroe has stepped in nicely to add to the returning core.

While the experience and athletic ability are there, time will soon tell if Stillwater can remain on top as it heads down the path to the state meet.

"If you want to be a champion, you better be ready at all times," Christensen said. "There has to be a sense of urgency. There has to be an unquenchable desire to excel, no matter when the meet is, no matter when the practice is. It just has to be something that you have to take on a daily basis."

The Ponies appear readier than ever.

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