Two years ago, nobody would’ve expected that Jacob Knodle would become one of the top runners in North Dakota.

Knodle placed 49th at the Class A state cross country meet his freshman season. He had a tremendous jump the following year, with his sophomore run earning him a seventh-place finish at state. He finished even higher this year, placing third for 11th-place West Fargo Sheyenne.

Now, a junior, Knodle is one of the top Class A boys individual runners in the state. He's been consistently ranked in the top three in the cross country coaches polls this fall.

Knodle recorded the highest individual finish for Sheyenne in the school's history at the state meet Saturday, Oct. 26, in Minot.

He crossed the finish line in 15 minutes, 42.9 seconds, punching in just 10 seconds behind the second-place runner. Knodle was the Mustangs only top-10 finisher.

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West Fargo Sheyenne's Jacob Knodle (left) races against Jamestown's Gavin Haut at Saturday's North Dakota Class boys state high school cross country meet in Minot. Knodle placed third and Haut placed fourth.     Tom Mix / NDHSAA
West Fargo Sheyenne's Jacob Knodle (left) races against Jamestown's Gavin Haut at Saturday's North Dakota Class boys state high school cross country meet in Minot. Knodle placed third and Haut placed fourth. Tom Mix / NDHSAA

Knodle also led the Mustangs at the East Region cross country meet Oct. 15 , recording a second-place finish for the third-place Mustangs. He came in just under three seconds behind Fargo North's Caleb Yokom at 17:00.43. For the second year in a row, he was the runner-up.

Knodle wasn’t an overnight success. It was his patience and dedication to stick with the sport that’s gotten him to where he is now, Mustangs head coach Troy Thorson said.

“It’s not all about talent. I wouldn’t be ashamed to say he’s not the most talented kid, but when you put that much time into something over the course of years to get where he is, that should be commended,” Thorson said. “Largely, he’s flown under the radar a lot.”

Knodle was motivated after his 49th-place finish as a freshman. And he’s held that internal motivation over the course of three seasons, Thorson said.

“What I think sets him apart are the values we should acknowledge — his work ethic is second to none, the commitment that he's shown, I mean it’s taken him three seasons to get to this point and he’s stuck with it,” Thorson said.

Even when he’s not in season, Knodle is out running. He hits the pavement every day of the week, and every four to six weeks, he'll take a day off. On average, he’ll run 7 to 8 miles daily, but during the off season, he builds up to the top end of his mileage, which is around 14.

Knodle said his habitual running was a large contributor to the jump he made at state his freshman year to his sophomore season.

“Probably the biggest change was just throughout the summer, I was way more consistent with my running,” Knodle said. “And I was kind of more focused on it. Just having that consistency really helped to make that jump.”

West Fargo Sheyenne's Jacob Knodle is exhausted after finishing in second place in the Eastern Dakota Conference cross country meet at Johnson Park in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum
West Fargo Sheyenne's Jacob Knodle is exhausted after finishing in second place in the Eastern Dakota Conference cross country meet at Johnson Park in Moorhead. David Samson / The Forum

When Knodle sees his name sitting at the top of the coaches polls, he’s proud, but sees the rankings as what they are.

“It's exciting, but at the same time, I kind of understand that they're just the polls,” Knodle said. “And really, it all just comes down to what happens at the state meet. So I just try to keep in the mindset of just kind of putting that aside and focusing on the actual meet.”

Knodle isn’t an overly vocal guy, but he “definitely” leads by example, Thorson said.

“I just think his qualities are things that we, especially as a coach, wish we could have that across the board,” Thorson said. “The total commitment to get better. This isn’t just, he does this a couple times a week.”

From barely cracking the top 50 at state two years ago, to a top-5 finish two seasons later, Knodle is finally being rewarded for his efforts.

“It’s starting to pay off, and as a coach, it’s really great to see — someone that’s willing to invest that much time and work into something to have it pay off," Thorson said. "That’s a pretty special deal.”

Knodle placed second at EDC last year, and made program history becoming the first Mustangs runner to be named to the All-State team with a seventh-place finish at state in 2018.

Thorson has been coaching for almost 20 years and said Knodle is one of the most self-aware kids he’s ever had.

“He’s very smart and intelligent. I trust him with a lot,” Thorson said. “He's very involved in his training. It’s almost like having another assistant coach to bounce ideas off. He’s opened my eyes to things. I’m just glad that I’ve been kind of a small part of his experience here at Sheyenne.”

The highest the boys cross country team placed at state as a team was ninth last year. It was the first top-10 finish in school history for Sheyenne. The Mustangs had sat around 13th place in earlier years.