Skinny as a fast-food straw, Palmer Ridge runner Eric Hamer doesn't hesitate to puff out his chest when he gets the chance.
Thursday, the junior first looked at the Cheyenne Mountain tent, and then to Coronado's. He thinks the Bears can overlap those powerhouses by season's end - and he's not the only one.
At the Cougar Classic, the Air Academy and Palmer Ridge boys' teams proved to be the best in the area, placing third and fourth, respectively, in the 41-team field.
Meanwhile, returning 4A champ Coronado, which was without All-American runner Bailey Roth (illness) and two other varsity runners, finished fourth and Cheyenne Mountain, which was also without a couple of its star runners, finished outside the top 20.
Individually, Hamer ran the area's fastest time of the day at 16 minutes, 6 seconds, good for sixth place - Coronado's Adam Egger followed in at 12th (16:13) and the Kadets' Danyon Anderson came in 14th (16:15) just ahead of a swarm his teammates.
With that, it's clear now. Despite the watered-down teams the Indians and Cougars threw out, nobody seems to be doubting that the area has more than two prize fighters circling the ring for a 4A title anymore.
"Coronado's and Cheyenne Mountain's programs have been good for a long time, so I think we're the new annoying kids on the block that no one really likes. I don't think they really like us," Hamer said. "I think we are good, and they don't want to admit that. Now, I'm not calling them bad people, because they've earned the respect with all their state championships. ... We still have something to prove ourselves. But I think we can do that and stick with them."
Air Academy believes the same. Led by Anderson, who weaved in and around languishing runners in the final mile, the Kadets were only three points behind second-place Pueblo West while having five runners finish under 17:30.
Afterward, a jubilant Anderson looked as if he could run another couple of 5Ks.
He described it as excitement of what the future holds for his team.
"There are all these schools here that have runners faster than our fastest runner, but we are all right there together," said Anderson, who was a part of the Kadets' varsity team that took 13th in state last season. "Winning state is definitely the goal - well it's my goal for the team. If we could do that it'd be amazing."
5A Mountain Vista won the boys' race led by Connor Weaver's win with a course record of 15:29.