Despite losing a Class A state champion to graduation, the expectations for the La Crescent High School boys cross-country team remained high. Led this season by senior Matt Steiger, last year’s Class A runner-up, the Lancers are looking to qualify for their fourth straight state meet.

Partially attributed to a pair of uncontested victories by Steiger, the sixth-ranked Lancers are on par with those standards after winning their first two meets of the season.

Steiger, who is the second-ranked runner in Class A, won his second straight race Sept. 7 in the annual Crazy Buffalo Invitational hosted by La Crescent at the Pine Creek Golf Course. Nursing a sore foot, Steiger outpaced the entire group by nearly 30 seconds, finishing in a time of 15 minutes, 49 seconds.

But even with Steiger’s commanding guide, the Lancers rely on a crowd of runners to continue their success. With its usual number-two runner Camdan Nolop out with an injury, La Crescent maintained its win streak on Sept. 7 by getting solid finishes from sophomore Thomas Lechnir (fifth), junior Dane McCormick (seventh), senior Andrew Jaquette (11th) and sophomore Bryce Duffy (15th).

“Cross-country is kind of an odd duck in sports, because one person can’t do it all by themselves,” said Mark Abraham, who is in his 34th season as coach of the La Crescent cross-country teams. “It takes a little bit of strain off the other kids knowing that they’ve got somebody that’s probably going to be penciled in as the top runner every week, but they still have a job to do themselves. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

The chain of the Lancer boys team has plenty of strength when it comes to experience, with some runners having ran in multiple state meets, and familiar with competing at the highest level.

As far as La Crescent’s odds of getting back to another state meet as a team, it’s still far too early to tell, and Abraham isn’t one to forecast or overstate.

“I don’t get too riled about anything anymore,” Abraham said. “We’re definitely not at full strength right now, but we’ve got the luxury of time. We don’t need to be there until Oct. 26 when we run the sectional meet.”

One significant difference La Crescent has had to get used to this season is running without Zack Emery. A team without Emery has the most effect on Steiger. After running nearly stride-for-stride with Emery in practices and meets for the last three seasons, Steiger has transitioned this fall to leading the team on his own. Abraham says this has changed the demographics of practice quite a bit, because the Lancers don’t have anybody that can match Steiger’s running level.

“The other guys have the advantage of all being fairly close in terms of ability, so they can run and work against each other,” said Abraham. “Whereas Matt’s pretty much just out there by himself every day of the week.”

Although the seclusion seems daunting, Abraham says the only part he’s had to play in the transition is to dial Steiger’s intensity back at times. Steiger’s tendency to push himself the hardest that he possibly can shows in the impressiveness of his cross-country career with the Lancers, which has grown with each season. After an accomplished freshman season, Steiger went from finishing 17th in the state meet his sophomore season to finishing as the runner-up last year by less than a second.

“Coming back from being in two state meets, I think he’s accepted the persona of being one of the best Class A boys runners in the state of Minnesota,” Abraham said of Steiger.

It’s unlikely that any runner in La Crescent’s section can contend with Steiger this season, but it will be far from a cakewalk for him to win every regular season meet. One of Steiger’s biggest tests comes on Thursday, when the Lancers compete at the 28-team Rochester Mayo Invitational.

Steiger will be matched up in the Mayo Invitational against some of the top-ranked runners in Class AA, which houses the biggest and most competitive programs in the state. One of those runners will be Class AA third-ranked Addison Stansbury from Stillwater — a program about 10 times larger than La Crescent.

“There’s a chance he could still win it and there’s a chance he could get beat,” said Abraham of Steiger running in the Mayo Invitational. “But regardless, it’s good for him to see that kind of competition. It doesn’t really do much for him to win by 30 seconds or more, because he’s far better off being a competitor.”

“Coming back from being in two state meets, I think he’s accepted the persona of being one of the best Class A boys runners in the state of Minnesota.”Mark Abraham