ESCANABA - Last month, the Escanaba boys made a huge statement by winning the Munising Invitational, which included every Division 1 cross country team in the Upper Peninsula.
The Eskymos hope to achieve the same success in Saturday's U.P. Finals at the Pictured Rocks Golf & Country Club near Munising.
Esky won't have much of a wait as it runs in the first race, which starts at 11 a.m.
The opening race will be followed by D-2 and D-3 boys', then D-1, D-2 and D-3 girls' events. All races are 3.1 miles.
The awards presentation is set for 3 p.m. at Munising High School.
Defending U.P. champ Houghton was runner-up to Esky in the Sept. 25 meet at Munising.
Kingsford was U.P. runner-up a year ago and the Eskymos placed third.
"We didn't have the greatest day up there last year," said Esky coach Jake Berlinski. "We're hoping to make amends this time."
The Esky boys were last crowned champions in 2006 at Houghton.
Esky is led by senior Andrew Stenberg, who was runner-up to Sault Ste. Marie freshman Parker Scott at Munising last month.
"Andy is just consistent," said Berlinski. "He has given 100 percent all year and anything extra he has. Winning the 1600 in track (at the U.P. Finals in Kingsford) last year has given him confidence coming into this season. He has little bit of an edge this year. He's not afraid of anybody."
Scott won last Saturday's Rudyard Invitational, covering the 3.1-mile course in a school-record 16 minutes, 12 seconds.
"We'll be trying to chase him down," said Berlinski. "He ran real well at Munising (16:15). He's an excellent runner. He's well trained and has a runner's mentality. When special athletes come around, it's fun to watch. We'll see what happens Saturday."
Also in the mix are Kingsford senior and two-time Great Northern Conference champion Dan Kulas, West-Pac champ Jacob Colling of Houghton and runner-up Devin Berg of Calumet and Marquette's Lance Rambo.
"I like how Menominee has been running," said Berlinski. "They're kind of healthy for the first time this year. I would put them in the mix with Houghton and Sault, and we can't forget about Marquette. They (Marquette) also have a good program, and they're coming back. We're used to seeing them at the top. Kingsford has been surging, too. It's going to be a competitive boys' final."
Also among Esky's leaders are sophomore Eric Cousineau, junior Jordan Ogren and senior Brad Derouin.
"We've had 10 or 11 kids who have run under 20 minutes this year," said Berlinski. "Our depth has enabled us to change the parts around when needed. They guys are real close-knit. They care about each other and just want to be together."
Senior Kyle Kleiman has been Gladstone's leader during the second half of the season.
"Our boys' team is young," said Braves' coach Gary Whitmer. "The whole season has been a huge learning experience for them. They've seen the course and ran well up there. We just want our kids to do their best, which is all we can ask for."
Stephenson, led by sophomore Connor Cappaert, is shooting for its third straight title.
Norway, however, edged the Eagles 37-38 for the Carney-Nadeau Invitational title two weeks ago and seems to be peaking for the Finals.
The Knights have since captured the Mid-Peninsula Conference title and their own invitational.
Hancock, which placed fourth in the West-Pac Conference meet, is also expected to be among the frontrunners.
Manistique's pacesetters are senior and two-time M-PC champ Tyler Pomeroy and classmate Bryson Lawrence.
In D-3, Munising will try to defend its title, with Cedarville and St. Ignace looming as its main challengers.
The Mustangs are led by freshman Brett Hannah, who copped the Central U.P./Skyline Conference title and won at Norway on Monday.
Joining in the individual title hunt are last year's U.P. runner-up Josh Hester of Cedarville and Brett Houle of Dollar Bay, who placed fourth in 2011.
Carney's Dionte Blahnik has paced area runners all season, with North Central's Dillon Robinson potentially in the medal hunt.
"We would just like to see our kids run their best times," said North Central coach Jerry Root. "If that's the case, Dillon could get a medal. But he'll have to work for it. Many of the kids from the Eastern U.P. and Munising are running fast times."