"It'd be great if we could finish in the top 20," senior Matt Lally said. "But we've already exceeded most people's expectations."
Centre's men finished second last weekend in the South/Southeast Regional. That wouldn't have been good enough to get them to nationals last year, but an increase in the number of teams in the region prompted the NCAA to grant a second team qualifying berth this season.
The Colonels were never ranked lower than third in the region this season, which is the most lofty perch the team has seen. They finished 10th, 10th and sixth in Lally's first three years with the team.
"It was sort of a dream my freshman year to go the nationals, but I never really thought it would happen," he said.
Centre has taken eight runners to the meet at Colfax, Wis., about 75 miles west of St. Paul, Minn., but only seven can race, and Lally might well be the alternate.
"I was fourth on the team my sophomore year, and now I'm fighting for seventh and eighth place," Lally said. "But that's done nothing but help my own time, too."
The Colonels have not seen the course they'll run Saturday, but they have some idea of the atmosphere of a national meet thanks to Eileen Schilling, a sophomore on the women's team who will compete at nationals for the second straight year.
"It's just so much more intense, so much more emotional," Schilling said.
"We've had a lot of competition, but this weekend is going to be another level," said sophomore Anthony Lippert, a Mercer County High School graduate. "It's going to be the most competitive race we've ever seen."
Many of the Centre men saw Schilling run in last year's nationals, which were relatively close to home at Hanover, Ind., and Centre coach Lisa Owens said they were itching to be on the other side of the fence that separated the runners from the spectators.
"They said, 'We can't stand being on the other side of the fence,'" Owens said.
Owens said the program has made this leap because it has begun attracting better runners, and she said the team's first national appearance will make the program even more attractive to the kind of recruits who can keep the program at a high level.
Meanwhile, Schilling will try to earn her second straight All-America award. She finished 35th last year, last on the list of All-America honorees.
"I'd definitely like to get All-American again and also improve my time," Schilling said. "I'll be a little more comfortable, but I'll still be very nervous. But having one year of experience will help."
And Schilling said she's glad to have some of her friends and teammates with her for the meet - and for tonight's pre-race banquet.
"She's got eight dates," Owens said.