FARGO - When looking at the North Dakota Girls Class A girls cross country preseason poll, something seems a bit off.
That Fargo Davies, a two-time defending state champ that returned all 10 runners who competed at the 2017 race, entered 2018 atop the rankings likely wasn't a surprise to anyone.
And though they clearly have high expectations for Davies in the coming season, it appears North Dakota High School Activities Association voters aren't expecting a wave of Eagle runners to be at the front of the field in Jamestown this October.
In four classes of boys and girls, Davies was the only team to earn a top-four ranking without having a runner rated in the top-10. And while stories of athletes using such perceived slights as motivation are a major part of sports lore, this Eagle team doesn't seem to be wired that way.
"It's fun to see our team ranked No. 1," said head coach Jason Edwards. "That's our goal at the end of the year. Our girls do have some individual goals they're trying to go for, but I don't think they pay a whole lot of attention to their ranking."
History suggests they have little reason to.
In one of the tightest state races ever, Grand Forks Central finished tied atop the scoreboard with 88 points a year ago, placing two runners in the top-10. Just behind was Bismarck, which scored 89 behind a pair of top-five finishers.
Yet when the race ended, neither was hoisting the state trophy. That honor went to an Eagle team whose top scorer, Megan Lundstrom, finished 11th.
Once Lundstrom crossed the finish line, a slew of teammates were right behind her. Despite finishing entirely outside the top 10, the Eagles were the only team to have all scorers place in the top-30, with the five runners finishing between 11th and 26th. As a result, they were able to equal Grand Fork Central's final score.
They also comfortably won the tie-breaker, given to the team with the highest No. 6 runner, as Payton Lane took 28th place, 17 spots higher and 17 seconds faster than the sixth runner for the Knights.
Considering how the state race played out, Davies runners aren't sweating any supposed lack of respect for their individual talents.
"I think that's more of a compliment than anything because that means we can all run together," said Bridget Henne, a 2018 senior captain. "It's cooler to see a pack of us come across the line than see a person come over in first place."
"You don't just become a state championship team because you have a couple good runners" added fellow captain McKenzie Burian. I think it's more the foundation that has been built before us."
Runners say the building of that foundation, which has led to four state titles since the program's 2010 inception, has come on and off the course in equal measure.
A roster that runs a whopping 62-girls deep spent a large portion of the offseason in each other's company, highlighted by a three-day retreat at Turtle River Campground and a cookout at the home of Coach Edwards.
These social excursions helped produce a team Burian believes to be "the closest in the entire state."
And while it seems reasonable to think it would be difficult to get a tightly knit group of over five dozen teenagers to focus on the task at hand, that doesn't seem to be the case with this team.
"The hardest part, really, is getting everyone into one space," senior Megan Lundstrom says. "It's really fun to have such a massive group of girls. The way we collaborate is really fun."
Edwards, who is in his third year as the team's head coach after spending the previous six as an assistant, believes the possibility of being part of something special has proven to be a huge motivating force up and down the roster.
"We really talk from the beginning of the season, our first runner to our last runner is going to make an impact," he said. "It might not be with their legs, it might not show up in results, but they're going to have an impact. When all the girls know they have a role on this team, it makes them want to push for each other even more."
The season began in predictably strong fashion for the Eagles on Aug. 25, as they placed five runners in the top 20 to win the 31-team Orriginals Meet in Jamestown with 56 points, 28 better than runner-up West Fargo.
They're also making waves in the individual rankings, as Lundstrom jumped all the way up to No. 2 in Class A following a third-place finish at Orriginals.
Though happy to see one of their own get respect, Davies runners know such things won't define their season.
"The past few years we haven't had a super big standout individual," Henne said. "We have to know that doesn't mean much because we're all going to be with each other in the big race."