LIVINGSTON — For weeks, maybe months, Daniel Wright had a sneaking suspicion.
His practices were teeming with talent, enough that he was confident a Western Athletic Conference cross country championship was within reach.
But the first-year coach wondered how they'd stack up regionally against the best runners in the valley, and perhaps Northern California.
Now he knows.
On the eve of the CIF State Cross Country Championships, Wright can claim at least one more victory: His intuition, that gut feeling that followed him to starting lines in San Francisco, Stockton, Atwater and Angels Camp, was spot on. His Wolves were good, and they've got one last trail to attack.
Livingston's boys became the first team in program history to clinch a berth at the state meet, which returns to Woodward Park in Fresno on Saturday morning.
"I don't think anyone expects they'll go to state," Wright said. "But as the season rolled on and we saw a couple of perfect scores in league and it got close to the state meet, it was a realization that this was something we could do.
"Other programs started to recognize it, too. 'Hey, we'll see you at state.' Then it was like, 'Wow, now we have expectations.' "
Led by senior Izzak Mireles and a team bond forged through years of grueling workouts and road trips, the Wolves will be the Stanislaus District's only team representative. They'll be joined in Fresno by 14 individuals.
"To me, this has been a four-year journey," said Mireles, a two-time state qualifier. "It took every ounce of energy to accomplish this. We knew we had the potential, so to make it is pretty significant."
Livingston extended its magical season with a second-place finish at the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 4 Championship, earning one of two spots afforded to teams.
The Wolves also were the runners-up at sub-sections, edged during each leg of the postseason by Dixon.
On Saturday, on a trail washed in school colors, Mireles and Livingston know exactly which set to hunt down first.
"Our No. 1 goal is to beat Dixon," Wright said without hesitation. "Once we do that, the goal is to be in the top half of all finishers."
Livingston will arrive in Fresno well equipped to handle the moment and spectacle that is state.
When Wright built his 2012 calendar, he chose races outside the area to expose and challenge his runners.
In his varsity boys, he returned a veteran squad anchored by Mireles (second at sections, 16:38), fellow fourth-year runners Sergio Garcia (ninth, 17:14) and Isaias Contreras, and junior Dilpreet Singh.
Andy Ponce, Ismael Bucio, and Diego Millan round a super seven that flew to a team title at the Pacific Tigers Invitational on Sept. 29.
The Wolves were also ninth at the San Francisco Invitational on Sept. 15, a meet that featured and crowned defending D4 state champion John Lawson of Sir Francis Drake.
Mireles was fifth at that meet and third at UOP -- performances consistent with his finishes closer to home.
"When you go (elsewhere after) three or four years competing against the same people, seeing the same faces, it opens their eyes to how good they really are," Wright said. "If you see success in another section, it's like, 'Wow, competing at the state level is something we can do.' "
Livingston also won the Merced County Invitational in record time in October, establishing themselves as the premier program in the southern half of the section.
"They are the best team our county has had in the last 10 years," said Atwater coach Ken Rhoades, also the Merced County meet director. "You'd probably have to go back to the Golden Valley teams of the late '90s to find a strong team in our county."
The Wolves gathered for a final workout on Wednesday morning, trotting through town in a light rain.
They returned to an empty campus in a pack, with Mireles, in black arm sleeves and a purple top, in the lead.
"After four years of cross country and four years of track, the chemistry does show," Mireles said. "It's not just me. It's the seventh guy to the first -- everyone matters on this team."
James Burns is Regional Sports Content Editor of The Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2324.