Entering his first season as the West Fargo Sheyenne boys cross country coach, Troy Thorson said his primary goal was simply to field a team that was consistently competitive.
It's safe to say expectations have changed.
Through four years of varsity competition, the Mustangs had never earned a first-place finish of any kind, be it individual or team. But in one fell swoop, both streaks came to an end during an Aug. 30 Invitational at Hatton-Northwood-Larimore.
Sparked by sophomore Jacob Knodle's winning time of 17:12.59, the Mustangs comfortably won the 16-team race with an 18-point cushion over runner-up Minot, finishing with a score of 42.
"It was pretty fun because you get to see yourself grow at the same time you get to see your team grow," Knodle said of breaking both streaks on the same day. "That's kind of exciting,"
Thorson, who is also in his fifth year as the Sheyenne girls coach, saw the wins as a stepping stone in the Mustangs' quest to be viewed as a player in the Eastern Dakota Conference and beyond.
Since its inception, the boys program has mostly been a postseason afterthought. Starting in 2014, the Mustangs have earned just one top-five finish in the EDC and have yet to place higher than 13th at the state tournament.
Serious about wanting to make marked improvements, Thorson knew they wouldn't come unless his runners bought in to strict, regimented offseason training program that pushed them beyond what they've done in the past.
So far, he has no complaints about how they've responded to the challenge.
"I've been pleased with what I've seen," Thorson said. "It's a group of boys that made a concentrated effort this summer to say 'We need to work a little bit harder, and we need to take this training a little bit more seriously if we're going to be competitive.'
"I've got a group of guys that want to train, that take it seriously. And they're moving in the right direction."
Helping runners stay motivated is the belief that this group has the most talent of any Mustang squad by a wide margin.
"This is by far the best team we've had," senior Troy Mullenberg said. "In the past we haven't had guys putting in the work. And this year (we do) and I think it really shows. It's been showing in our meets as well."
Two days after being interviewed, Mullenberg and his teammates had their best showing yet, parlaying their first win into their first winning streak.
In a field that included Class A third-ranked Grand Forks Red River, Sheyenne earned another first-place finish at Saturday's West Fargo Invitational. The Mustangs score of 40 was seven points better than Red River.
Knodle once again finished at the front of the field, taking first in 17:20.23, more than 17 seconds faster that West Fargo's Aiden Biwer, the race's runner-up.
The Mustang's strong balance of upper and underclassmen was on full display Saturday, as seventh grader Aiden Johnson, who placed third at Hatton-Northwood-Larimore, took fourth in 17:43.94.
Mullenberg (6th) and fellow senior Adam Roy (12th) also placed in the top-20, as did junior Lee Williams, who completed team scoring with a finish of 17th.
Whether this success carries over to a high-pressure, postseason environment remains to be seen. But with their confidence continuing to grow, Mustang runners don't anticipate any kind of drop off.
"We definitely can make (a postseason) leap," Knodle said. "We have more top-to-bottom talent this year. The work ethic has been really consistent and I think that consistency is really going to pay off"
The Mustangs competed at the Fargo Shanley Invitational Tuesday after the Pioneer had gone to press. They return to action at the Valley City Invitational on Sept. 22.