Tom Nemanich and Asa Beckner were able to see the excitement from a distance.
In seventh and eighth grade, respectively, the two saw their older brothers — George Nemanich and Meyer Beckner — elated to get to state in 2012. It was the first time since 1999 that the Winger boys' cross-country team had qualified for the state meet.
"I was an alternate with Phil Mitchell, and it was a great experience," Asa said. "Running and cheering the guys on, it was great energy. I think it helped motivate the other guys, too."
Tom added, "I always looked up to all them and tried to work as hard as they did in practice so I could do that in the future."
It was a 14-year wait between state appearances back then. Now, with Tom and Asa at the forefront for much of it, the Wingers have been getting to state regularly.
"It's been exciting. State's pretty cool, no matter what sport it is," Tom said. "Being back there so much has helped us."
After winning the Section 1AA championship last week, the Red Wing boys will compete in its fourth state championship meet in five years when the gun sounds for the boys' Class AA championship at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Olaf College in Northfield.
While the last names remain the same, Red Wing head cross-country coach Jesse Nelson said Tom and Asa, as well as the rest of the squad, are completely different.
"Both (George and Meyer) were very instrumental in starting this run of going to state tournaments. That's been very fun," Nelson said. "The team is very different (than 2012). Each team has their own unique take as they evolve with their maturity and identity. They're kind of figuring it out."
And, every runner on last year's state team is back, giving the Red Wing boys unparalleled experience from any other Winger team in this state run.
With younger runners helping the varsity boys train, Asa sees the same look in the younger runners' eyes that he had as an eighth-grade alternate.
"They're a great group of kids and they work hard," Asa said. "I hope they have the same level of success in their future."
And that has made Tom, Asa and the rest of the Red Wing boys hungry for more. Running at state isn't enough anymore.
"We want it really bad, so we're trying to do the best we can to give ourselves the best chance to perform well," Tom said. "It all comes down to this at the state meet. This is what we trained for all this season."
The boys have their sights set on breaking the top five, which has been done just once in school history with a third-place finish in 1987.
"If we have good mindsets, we have a good chance to go in there and get in (the top five)," Asa said.
"If we overachieve a little bit, being in that top four or five is not out of the question," Nelson said. "I don't know if we've seen the full potential of this team. We saw it at the Red Wing invite. If we put together a complete race with five or six guys and run like they're capable of doing, like they have before, cracking the top five is not out of the question."
Mollgaard ready for solo shot
Gaining the last solo state spot in the section tournament, Ariana Mollgaard wants to prove she earned it when she takes to the starting line of the Class AA championship at 10 a.m.
"This year I feel like it's more pressure because I took one of the individual spots so I have something more to go after," Mollgaard said. "Last year was hard because I felt like my team was depending on me but this year, I feel like if I did bad, I'd feel bad because I took one of the spots. I don't want to disappoint."
Mollgaard's worry notwithstanding, Nelson gushed over the junior's improvement over the season. A year ago, Mollgaard ran with the Winger girls' state team, placing 153rd overall.
"At this time last year, she was barely our seventh runner. She made our section and state team by a slim margin," Nelson said. "Now for her to lead our team and be our lone qualifier, it's a great example of what can be done. She's a junior and she has put her mind to it. I'm so proud of her effort, especially how she kept driving through and ran her best race of her career last week."
With a time of 19 minutes, 18.1 seconds at the section championship, it gave Mollgaard a better idea of what she's capable of. It may be hard to replicate that time at St. Olaf, but it's a reminder to Mollgaard that when she's tired, there's always more in the tank.
"That was a 40-second PR for me. Your body can do more than you think it can," Mollgaard said. "If I'm tired, I'll know I can do better than this. ... I don't know if I can PR at this course, but my goal is to finish the race and think that's the best I can do."
Nelson added, "She knows what to expect. I don't think she'll be just happy to be there. We just want to make sure she goes out with a great effort."
State Cross-Country championship meet
Where: St. Olaf College, Northfield
10 a.m.: AA girls
11 a.m.: AA boys
1 p.m.: A girls
2 p.m.: A boys
AA girls: Ariana Mollgaard (Red Wing)
AA boys: Red Wing team (Tom Nemanich, Tucker Wallin, Bryan Zucker, Weston Wyatt, Asa Beckner, Skyler Bennyhoff, Jonah Leise)
A girls: Natasha Sortland (ZM/KW); Jacey Majerus (Lake City); Johannah Clementson (Lake City)
A boys: Tanner Horton (Pine Island); Hunter Grimm (Lake City).
Team qualifiers (rankings if applicable)
AA girls: Wayzata (1st), Edina (2nd), St. Michael-Albertville (3rd), Willmar (5th), Marshall (7th), Farmington (8th), White Bear Lake (10th), Stillwater (11th), Lakeville South (12th), Alexandria, Andover, East Ridge, Forest Lake, Maple Grove, Moorhead, Rosemount.
AA boys: Wayzata (1st), Edina (2nd), White Bear Lake (3rd), Stillwater (4th), Mounds View (6th), Buffalo (8th), Willmar (9th), Rosemount (10th), Sartell (11th), Alexandria, Cloquet, Forest Lake, Prior Lake, Red Wing, St. Michael-Albertville, Winona.
A girls: Perham (1st), Winona Cotter (2nd), Stewartville (3rd), Fairmont (4th), Annandale (5th), Belle Plaine (6th), Minnehaha Academy (7th), Luverne (8th), Maple Lake (9th), Jordan (10th), Lac qui Parle Valley/Dawson-Boyd (11th), Eden Valley-Watkins/Kimball, North Shore, Proctor, United North, West Central Area.
A boys: Perham (1st), Mankato Loyola/Cleveland (2nd), Lac qui Parle Valley/Dawson-Boyd (3rd), St. James Area (4th), North Shore (5th), Greenway-Nashwauk-Keewatin (6th), Mora (7th), Jordan (8th), Mounds Park Academy (9th), La Crescent (10th), Mountain Lake Area (11th), Staples-Motley (12th), Ada-Borup/Norman, Heritage Christian, Rochester Area Home Schools, West Central Area.