WILTON, Iowa – Wilton cross country runner Zach Hein set his preseason target at 17 minutes, 30 seconds.

Just like any sport, though, it has taken time for the junior to get back up to speed. Hein said his top time a year ago was 17:38, and in the first two meets this fall, he clocked an 18:32.59 and 18:54.0.

From there, it didn't take long for him to start dropping time.

Four days after running that 18:54.0 at the Tipton Invitational on Sept. 4, Hein finished the course at the Monticello Cross Country Invitational in 17:41, good enough for seventh place in the individual standings and just 11 seconds off the goal he set at the beginning of the season.

"It's like any other sport, the first game is hardly ever going to be dynamite," Wilton coach Nick Dohrmann said. "I'm sure there's a big difference between the first football game and the last. It's the same with wrestling or basketball or baseball. I think you're just seeing some things happen from the first one, and we're trying to build on that.

"You always have that first competition in anything. It's kind of like a dress rehearsal, you see what you got and you make adjustments."

Hein, who has been running cross country since he was in the seventh grade, credited the minute and 13 second improvement Saturday to the help of his teammates and coaches.

"The coaches push us hard, and then with the kids, we keep pushing each other and we stay as a team," Hein said.

Hein has finished as Wilton's top runner in each of the first four meets this season, never finishing worse than 21st overall. While Tuesday's English Valleys Cross Country Invitational wasn't his best performance time-wise as he finished in 18:56.36, Hein still placed fourth overall and secured back-to-back top-10 finishes.

"He's making strides from what I see," Dohrmann said of Hein. "Times are one thing when you have two different courses, two different days. It's hard to compare, so you try to gauge on what you see, how they're racing, and I think (Hein) has really been making some strides these last two races."

Hein has been a big factor in all of Wilton's meets this season, most recently helping guide the Beavers to a third-place finish in the boys standings at the English Valleys Invite.

"(Tuesday's meet) was great," Dohrmann said. "The girls got second, and the boys got third in a pretty dominant 1A meet, so it was nice to see how we would do in that situation there. But I don't want our best meet now. I want it at the most important time of the year. I think they're doing alright."

Hein said that he will set another time to aim for if he reaches his first target of 17:30.

Considering the improvements he has made in just a few short weeks, it appears to be a matter of when, not if, Hein starts revising his goals.

"He comes in, he does the work, he listens," Dohrmann said of coaching Hein. "He's always giving an effort, so it's pretty easy right now."

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