What a difference a year has made for Wilder Schaaf.

What a difference a year has made for Wilder Schaaf.

After struggling through a junior season that concluded with a disappointing 55th place at the Class 5A state cross country meet, Schaaf enters Saturday's state meet at Lane Community College in Eugene as the likely favorite. He has the best 5,000-meter time at the 5A level this year — a 15 minute, 27.5-second finish at the Harrier Classic on Oct. 3 — and he knows what it takes to perform on the grandest stage after sweeping the 1,500 and 3,000 at the state track and field meet last May.

"He's been on fire this whole season after the first two meets and has run flawlessly," Ashland head coach Bob Julian Jr. said of Schaaf. "I think he's as strong a favorite as anybody, but the defending state champion is returning and he's in pretty good shape."

That would be Josh Elliott, the senior from Crater who won it all last fall in 15:44.4. Schaaf will be looking to dethrone Elliott for the second time in two weeks after winning the Southern Sky Conference district title last Saturday at Klamath Falls. Schaaf also will be looking to make Ashland history by capturing what would be the Grizzlies' second boys individual title and first since Sean McLeary won it all in 1991.

Ashland senior Paul Schwarzer, who finished sixth at districts, gives the Grizzlies another potential top-10 finisher. Schwarzer enters the meet with the seventh-best 5k time in the state (15:54.8) and will be looking to best his 27th-place showing of 2008.

Schwarzer also wants to qualify for the BorderClash, a meet that pits the top runners from Washington against the top runners from Oregon. Only the top 12 placers at state qualify.

"It's definitely within his grasp, but he can't have an off race," Julian said.

Crater is the clear favorite in the team race after claiming the SSC championship with 24 points to Ashland's 55. The Grizzlies aim to at least make it close, but Julian said a second-place team finish is more realistic.

"It's going to be very difficult to beat Crater, but I think it will be a little bit of a disappointment if we don't get second."

On the girls side, Ashland's super sophomore Mia O'Dougherty continued her breakout season last week by placing second in the SSC district meet and enters state with the sixth-best time this year (19:06.0).

O'Dougherty and teammates Camelia Mayfield and Marshall Miller lead an Ashland team that placed second to Crater at districts and "could finish anywhere between second and fifth," at state, according to Julian.

O'Dougherty's meteoric rise from first-year nobody to top-10 contender has not come as a complete surprise to her coaches, but that doesn't mean Julian isn't impressed.

"She did track last year and it was very evident that she had a ton of talent, so we knew that she would be a factor for the team," Julian said. "I don't think we anticipated her being our No. 1, but most of the season she has been."

The team race is more of a question mark on the girls side. Crater edged Ashland by five points at districts, and defending state champion Summit is strong again.

Julian is hoping for a top-four finish, which would yield a trophy. In Julian's best-case scenario, the Grizzlies leave Eugene with two trophies.

"We've never actually done that since I've been at Ashland," Julian said.