At the Class 2A state qualifying meet in Iowa City, Wilton’s Zach Hein crossed the finish line in fourth place, easily good enough to qualify for the state meet.
When Hein finished, he shook hands with the three runners that placed in front of him. Then, as the rest of the best runners Class 2A has to offer met with their coaches or family members, the Wilton senior stood in virtually the same place and shook hands with every runner that finished behind him.
"That's something I've done for a while now," Hein said. "It's just kind of to show the guys that they did their best and showing respect for everyone who goes out for (cross country)."
It was a terrific sign of sportsmanship. But make no mistake, Hein, along with fellow 1A qualifier Aiden Housman of Wapello as well as West Liberty tandem Ashton Burroughs and Jimena Fierro, make up a group that will be fiercely competitive while on the course at the state race Saturday at Lakeside Municipal Golf Course in Fort Dodge.
There’s plenty of experience among the group as well. Only Burroughs, a sophomore, will be running at state for the first time. The other three seniors can enjoy the luxury of having been there before.
"I know (Hein) has some lofty goals and wants to compete," Wilton head coach Nick Dohrmann said. "He knows what he's capable of doing and knows what he wants to do, and when the gun goes off, he'll go for it."
Housman made a big jump last season at the state meet over the year prior, and he's hoping to accomplish a similar leap after finishing 39th last season.
"This is his third time there and I think he wants this to be the best one he's had," said Micah Peck, Wapello head coach. "He moved up 20 spots last year (compared to as a sophomore) and we're hoping he moves up another 20 this year."
"When I ran as a sophomore, a big thing for me was I wasn't able to stay relaxed," Housman said, "I got really nervous and tensed up. I wasn't able to have the race I wanted to.
"Last year I really preached to myself that I had to stay relaxed and I had a lot better turnout ... physically I feel pretty good right now."
Which means Housman might spend a portion of the race running alongside Hein, which happened during the qualifying meet in which Housman finished seventh, three places behind Hein.
Hein also barely bested Housman at last year’s state meet, finishing 37th.
As for the Comets’ dynamic duo, Fierro is doing her best to help Burroughs navigate his first race at state.
"I think the first time I went to state cross country it was kind of to just soak it all up," Fierro said. "It was a little overwhelming.
"(Ashton) is a really good runner, he has so much potential, but he just needs to soak it up so ... he'll want to be there again next year."
But Fierro isn't letting any of that get in the way of her goals as her last cross country race draws near.
"This year I'm going to be more focused on competing and trying to get into the top ten," Fierro said.
Fierro placed 30th at the state meet in 2017.
"It will be a good experience for (Burroughs) no matter what," West Liberty coach Mike Hart said, "and it's Jimena's last shot at it, so could be a fun one to watch."