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MUSCATINE, Iowa — It’s not easy to tell that Alex Bautista is just a sophomore when he runs.

Or that he had never run in a cross country meet until the Muscatine High School boys cross country team opened the season at the Iowa Mennonite School Early Bird Invitational on Sept. 2.

“He’s a very steady — just a mentally tough guy,” Muscatine coach Chris Foxen said. “He takes change really well, whether it be in the workout or the atmosphere of the meet or whatever and he seems to be able to adapt to the situations well.”

Foxen was specifically talking about how Bautista would handle running as an individual Saturday at the Iowa State Co-Ed State Cross Country Class 4A boys race on Saturday morning at Lakeside Municipal Golf Course in Fort Dodge, but he could just as well have been talking about how he has taken to the sport.

Despite never running cross country until this fall, Bautista has steadily gotten better and better this season as he quietly slid into the Muskies No. 1 runner position and earned the program’s first state meet berth since they qualified as a team in 2006.

“I feel really excited and really ready to go,” Bautista said.

While he started the season in the varsity lineup, Foxen let Bautista race amongst his peers in freshman/sophomore races a few times this season. It was during those races that Bautista began to blossom.

He won the freshman/sophomore race at the Cedar Rapids Invitational on Sept. 11 and again a week later at the Rich Engel Classic in Cedar Falls.

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“It got me more confident with my running,” Bautista said. “Some of those freshman guys are pretty good. That [Anthony] Pena kid from Bettendorf, he ran in a race with me and I outran him. It helped pushed me a lot.”

He would add the Burlington Invitational varsity race title to his list of accomplishments Sept. 25, setting the stage for his state berth, where things will be different.

Instead of lining up next to his Muscatine teammates, he’ll find himself at the starting line alongside fellow individual qualifiers Oleg Nochvay and Tyler Combs, both of Indianola.

“We’ve been talking about that. I’ve been trying to prepare him as much as he can, mentally," Foxen said. "… When the race starts in other parts of the year, he ends up, sometimes, in positions when he’s by himself. There should be some familiarity with some of the people in the race.”

Bautista has been training this week with some of his teammates — specifically Christian Zogg-Kellett, Tyler Olson, Kyle Hoffman and Garrett Dolan — which has helped even if they won’t be out there Saturday.

"I’ve been running with them the whole year and they’ve pushed me along the whole year through everything, no matter what,” Bautista said. “I’m glad they’re out here.”

Bautista hopes to cap his stellar debut season with a top-30 finish, something Foxen has little doubt his young runner can achieve.

“He doesn’t get skiddish in big races,” Foxen said. “It seems, I would even say, the bigger the race, the bigger the opportunity, the more potential there is — he sees it as the greater the opportunity and really tries to take that opportunity and exploit it for all that it’s worth.”

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