Waupun XC Runners Bailey Bille, Rhyer Smit

Waupun's Bailey Bille (left) and Rhyer Smit (right) will lace up their spikes Saturday at The Ridges Golf Course in Wisconsin Rapids to compete in the boys Division 3 race at the WIAA state cross country championships.

WAUPUN — Bailey Bille’s sophomore season with the Waupun’s prep boys cross country team didn’t live up to his expectations. And his junior season was even worse yet, beset by injuries.

All of that’s in the past now, though. This year, he’s back where it all started.

Bille ran at the WIAA state cross country championships when the Warriors qualified as a team his freshman year, and Saturday, he’ll finally make his long-awaited return to Wisconsin Rapids.

This trip to state — this whole season, actually — is the best yet, he said.

“I didn’t really take in as much as I wanted to my freshman year. I’ll remember this one a lot more,” Bille said. “It was probably the most fun I’ve had ever my whole time doing this.”

The reason this season has been so much more memorable than three years ago, he said, is because he was the only freshman on the 2014 team that placed 15th at the state meet.

“It was me, three seniors, and some sophomores — we all still knew each other really well, but this year I’m a lot closer with the team,” he said.

Bille is running well when it matters most.

He took fourth at last Saturday’s sectional meet in Winneconne with a time of 17 minutes, 12.35 seconds over the 5,000-meter course — not far off the personal record time of 17:02.17 that he turned in 2½ weeks earlier at the Laconia Invite in Rosendale.

This Saturday’s race at The Ridges Golf Course will be different, though — instead of running near the front of the pack like he’s gotten used to, he knows based off of the seed times of others in the field that he’ll be more in the middle of the pack.

He’s not concerned.

“Being my last race for the entire cross country season, I’m going for time — I’m just going to run my own race and hopefully break that 17 mark,” he said.

Meanwhile, the journey has just begun for Waupun freshman Rhyer Smit. He has gone from not knowing what to expect and posting a time of 18:30 at a practice meet 2½ months ago to taking eighth in 17:28.07 at the Winneconne sectional on Saturday, earning a state meet berth of his own.

Smit’s goals started to come into focus on Sept. 12 at Fond du Lac County Park in Waupun when he finished fourth in the boys 5K at the invite his team hosted with a time of 18:16.18.

“I was up in the top five and my time was really close to breaking 18, so I knew I could break it,” he said.

Four days later at Tuscumbia Golf Course in Green Lake during the Kris Greening Invite, Smit posted a time of 18:04.96 — and five days after that was a virtual carbon copy at the Horicon Invite at River Bend Park.

Then came his big breakthrough: a fifth-place finish and time of 17:22.48 at the Laconia Invite on Oct. 3.

Smit said he’s leaned on Bille as a resource for what to expect and what sort of strategy to employ Saturday at The Ridges. But when it comes right down to it, Smit knows he’s in control of his own destiny.

If he’s able to hit his goal of setting a new PR, he’s the one who has to weave in and out of traffic on the more-congested-than-normal course.

And he’s the one who has to stay on enough of a pace to have a chance at that goal in the final 1,000 meters.

The biggest key, though?

“Definitely my finish,” he said. “I’ve got to have a big kick at the end.”

Follow Dan on Twitter @Danny_Larson_8.