Emma Puetz and Aidan Sheffel are no strangers to the Missouri State Cross Country Championships, as it's been an annual tradition for the two Rolla runners, but they'll be running for the first time as teammates this season. Sheffel transferred to Rolla from Battle this season and will be making her fourth and final State appearance on Saturday. Puetz, a junior, will now be making her third straight trip representing the Lady Bulldogs.
This season has been a fresh new experience for Sheffel as she was thrown into a new team for her senior season, but she's loved running with her friends here in Rolla.
"I've loved running with them, I love the team and I think we've gotten really close in a real short period of time," said the Rolla senior. "(This team has helped the transition to Rolla because) I've always got cross country kids, I feel like."
Both of the Rolla runners are looking forward to another trip down to State and have a lot of experience to pull from. Puetz jumped from 133rd place as a freshman to 50th place as a sophomore last season and is looking to break into the top 25 this time around.
"I am very excited. I definitely think I've learned from my past two years," said Puetz. "I feel like I've grown mentally stronger and physically stronger and I feel like I just know the race better and know the competition better this year.
"It's hard, it's always hard with the competition and everything. I definitely want to be in the top 25 this year," continued the Rolla runner. "I know I've said it the last two years, but I think this year I can definitely do it. I'm ranked 26th."
Sheffel, meanwhile, has a boatload of experience. Not only has she run in the State Meet in each of the last three seasons, she also ran regular season meets on Oak Hills Golf Course in Jeff City in her first three seasons at Battle. That experience on the course could be a big factor, as teams aren't allowed to run on the course prior to the race due to the rainy weather.
"I went to State every year and we used to run it just as a regular season meet at Battle," said Sheffel. "I'm trying to get my best time at State, I guess I'm going to try to go under 20."
Rolla head coach Rhett Cook is confident that their experience will pay off because of the fact that none of the runners will have a chance to test out the course before the race.
"We can't get on that course until the actual race and they've been on it. This is Emma's third time and Aidan has been on it every year too," said the Rolla head coach. "Not being able to get on it, I feel more comfortable, because they know it like the back of their hands. That is nice."
The two Lady Bulldog runners are the most experienced out of the trio from Rolla that will head down, as Cook makes his first trip to State as a head coach. He's excited to have his first coaching experience as the State Meet this season.
"I'm super excited about it. At the Sectional Meet I had a parent say 'I think you're more excited than the kids,'" said coach Cook with a chuckle. "I'm super pumped about it...I get more jitters than they do, because I get real excited and get goosebumps, but at Sectionals, it was the same way. I was pumped up, talking 100 miles an hour, so it's nice that they're more calm than me in a sense."
The start is always the toughest part of the State race, as all that energy and excitement builds up and many runners shoot out of the gate full steam ahead. Puetz and Sheffel are both trying to focus on staying patient and smart with their races.
"You just have to make sure that you stay mentally tough throughout the race," said Puetz. "If a person does mass you, you just have to think you'll get them in the next 200 meters or that you're not going to let that person go ahead of you, you're going to stay with them."
"Just calm down and realize its just a race," added Sheffel. "Just try and do your best, because that's all you can do."
The two runners are also looking forward to having each other in the starters box. Puetz had a teammate with her last year in Krista Hilmas, but she ran by herself as a freshman. At Battle, Sheffel has run the State Meet solo for each of the last two seasons. Having a teammate by your side is always a confidence booster in a big race.
"I definitely think it helps with Aiden being there with me in that box, because my freshman year I didn't have anybody with me and it was such a scary experience," said Puetz. "It definitely helps just having someone there just to calm you down."
"Freshman year I had someone with me, but the other years I didn't and it's kind of scary being out there by yourself," added Sheffel.
Puetz and Sheffel both want to run a good race and learn even more from the experience, but the number one takeaway that they want to have is just having a good time with the race.
"Of course having fun," said Puetz. "You have to have fun."