For most of the season, Cody Lund was content to cruise along with his comfortable spot in the Sterling cross country pecking order.
He was the Golden Warriors' fifth man, and he'd cross the finish line sometime after the team's established top four of Jon Landis, Keaton Dir, Zach Alston and Nick Olds.
At the Northern Illinois Big 12 race this past Saturday in Morris, however, Lund made a lunge forward. He was the third Sterling runner to finish, his time of 15 minutes, 59.8 seconds good for 20th place, and the first time he'd cracked the 16-minute mark this season.
Landis and Alston finished sixth and 19th, respectively, with Dir (21st) and Olds (25th) rounding out the five counting scores. For Lund, it was a significant breakthrough.
"I was just trying to stay up with them for most of the time," Lund said. "They kept pushing me, and finally I was able to push them. I got third, so that was exciting."
For Sterling coach Charlie Bishop, it was a big plus to have a runner come through with that type of performance.
"This is a team," Bishop said, "even though there can only be seven to run and only five get to score, nine of them are pushing each other to make sure we all get better."
The Golden Warriors are hoping to peak in the coming weeks, first at the Sterling Regional on Saturday, then more importantly at the Belvidere Sectional on Saturday, Nov. 2. It has been 30 years since Sterling qualified a boys cross country team for state.
Sterling finished 13th at the Belvidere North Sectional a year ago, a mark the team viewed as unacceptable this year.
"We've been thinking about that since the season started," Lund said. "We have to make it to state, because this is the best team we've had in a long time. I think we have the pieces to do it in a couple of weeks."
Each of Sterling's nine varsity runners will get a chance to contribute. Bishop has picked seven to run in the regional, then seven more for the sectional. He wouldn't reveal who was running in which race, but those performing the best would get to run at state.
"Sometimes you don't think about the bottom of the lineup," Bishop said. "Everybody's always talking about the No. 1 runner in. It's not just the No. 1 or No. 2. Yeah, they've probably got a chance to get to state on their own, but we want to make it as a team.
"They've really taken that to heart, especially those bottom guys fighting for those last positions. Every week there's a new guy pushing to get in there, which is huge because that pushes the front-runners."
The No. 6-9 runners, in no particular order, have been Evan Reiley, Ethan Rocha, Dakota Trancoso and Cody Hansen. At least once this season, each has cracked the top five in a given race, and that's helped them motivated to do it again when it counts the most.
"Absolutely it pushes me," Reiley said. "I always want to try my best to be in the top five as much as I can, and I'm always thinking what can I do better the next race. What can I do different to get there?"
"I like being a team guy," Trancoso added. "The individual role is fun, but we strived as a team the whole summer, and throughout this season we've picked each other up. We've grown as a team together."