Imagine being the third best team in a particularly strong state of distance running.
Now imagine always being third, like agonizingly so, even after you've had your best day. As time goes on, you begin to feel a sweeping sense of inevitability: Will we ever not be third?
But you also know something to be true: You're better than that. You know you're better than most state's No. 1s, and you know can compete with anyone in the country.
So you lean on something else: Other people noticing. When the time comes for you to qualify for that national meet you've been wanting to go to all season long, you trust the process. You tell yourself: They'll know we're more than that third place.
But then that moment comes and goes and you're out. They didn't notice.
"It was disappointing," Douglass Plunkett said of that actual scenario in 2018.
Plunkett is the 19-year head coach of Downers Grove South High School, which was the first team out of NXN selection last season -- no public votes are available, but based on national rankings, we can make the argument that DGS at least deserved to be the first one out.
And while the DGS girls were no doubt a success in terms of time and performance across last fall -- the team was 8th nationally in terms of 3-mile average -- the program also couldn't get over the hump when it most needed to, finishing third behind Naperville North and Yorkville at four big meets, including the IHSA Class 3A Cross Country State Championship and NXR Midwest.
Still, Plunkett and his team were convinced that their squad would be considered for one of four wildcards by the Nike Cross Nationals team-selection committee.
The Mustangs continued to train hard in the two weeks following NXR Midwest and, at least in Plunkett's eyes, looked to be in the best form of their season.
"I felt like they were in good shape and ready to run well," he said.
But it wasn't meant to be. DGS didn't get picked in favor of teams from Colorado, New York, California and Idaho.
And in December, following the conclusion of NXN, the final results were no doubt interesting: Naperville North was the NXN runner-up, while Yorkville was 13th overall.
Niwot, the wildcard pick from Colorado, was fifth overall, while California's Vista Murrieta was seventh. Two more, Boise Senior (ID) and Liverpool (NY), were 10th and 15th.
"Those teams ended up running well and proved that they deserved to be there," Plunkett said. "But I feel like we could have done the same thing.
"More than anything, it's motivating this year to try and not let it be in the hands of those people again. We want to work hard and be first or second, where we can decide our own fate and not have to rely on what other people think of us."
Cue Redemption Road for the Mustangs in 2019. DGS returns five runners from last year's team, including it's No. 1, Brenna Cohoon, and several more who are extremely motivated.
The first race of the 2019 season at Detweiller Park produced five times under 18:30 for 3-miles--where the Mustangs were the most dominant team--and then at the team's official opener on August 27 the girls finished 1-2-3-4 and seventh, averaging 18:46 for 3-miles.
"I think we're looking pretty good right now," Plunkett said.
Three sophomores--Sophia Mcnerney, Alex Spang and Kelsey Casella--are in the top seven, along with seniors Cohoon, Kennedy Warden and Erin Reidy.
That veteran-to-underclassmen chemistry is proving to be a nice combination thus far.
"I feel pretty confidence that we're going to have a good 1-2 and then we'll be able to close the gap with the top four," Plunkett said.
Much of the team's early success can probably be pointed back to that snub last fall. But Plunkett also points to a very comprehensive summer, which included added mileage for the trio of seniors, who embraced the work necessary to make 2019 different.
Illinois allows a 25-day contact period for fall sports over the summer, to which DGS used the time wisely. There was a camp that basically acted as an "unofficial practice," which led to some very productive days in the heat.
Plunkett believes his girls set their goals in front of them this summer.
"They've been together all summer," he said. "They came to be and said, 'This is what we want to accomplish. We want to win state and we want to qualify for NXN."
That would be a tall order, considering in 19 years Downers Grove South hasn't won state and it still hasn't qualified for NXN.
But the Mustangs are as close as they've ever been.
Last year's third-place finish at state was the team's best in school history.
"We didn't run poorly," Plunkett said of his team's performance at Detweiller Park. "Our state meet, Naperville North and Yorkville ran the two fastest times in state history to finish 1st and 2nd. We ran the 7th and 10th fastest time to get third."
What makes Plunkett's aspirations compelling on another level is his background. Before he came to DGS, he was the head coach at Yorkville, where he mentored current Foxes head man Chris Muth.
He also lives in the Naperville North School District, and that's where kids went to school--his son, in fact, just graduated and was coached by Dan Iverson.
"We've had a lot of friendly bouts in cross country over the years," he said.
Ultimately, if 2019 is to be different for DGS then the team will have to maximize its performances on race day.
But signs are indicating the team is up for the challenge.
"I'm not going to turn away any of their goals," Plunkett said. "I am just going to try and coach them to do as well as they can. Hopefully we'll run well together and hone it in when it matters most."
That won't be so hard to imagine.
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Contact MileSplit's Cory Mull at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bycorymull