"She has improved a tremendous amount on her strength," Smith said. "She has more confidence than last season and she's taken on the role as a leader. She's been consistently training and her ultimate goal is a top-five individually. With the talent in the state, I believe she can do it, but it's going to be a dogfight. When it comes down to it, she has a stronger will than any runner on the female side that I've ever worked with."
In fact, it was a promise Smith made to Panger before the season that has allowed all of the Cougars' newfound success to be possible.
"One of my goals was to field a team of girls to build around Peyton as our leader," Smith said. "One of the promises I made to her at the beginning of the season is that I would get her a team and have a strong team for her. At the beginning of the season I made her a captain and I couldn't say enough about Peyton and the job she's done."
The odds are stacked against the Cougars as Capital is not ranked in runwv.com's latest cross country power rankings. Panger is tabbed as the No. 8 girls runner but no other Cougar is listed in the top 50.
Smith and his team have firm aspirations entering Saturday.
"I'd like to have Peyton get all-state," Smith said. "Our goal for the team is to finish in the top 50 percent. There are 12 teams, so I'd like to finish in the top six."
In all likelihood, the Cougars will continue their meteoric rise over the next couple of seasons. Smith said a couple of girls from other athletic teams have made commitments to run next year and he expects a handful of freshmen to make big contributions, all while adding another year of strength, maturity and speed to the seven runners who sport the blue and silver now.
Panger offered some unique perspective about watching the construction of a team one brick at a time.
"I see it getting better and the sky is the limit," Panger said of the team. "There's a lot of upcoming freshmen next year that are interested in running and enjoy it. I ran with some of them in middle school, I talked to them about coming out for cross country when they were younger and they're still with it. It's been really cool to see that growth and it's cool to think, 'I was there when this all started.' "
Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, ryan.pr...@wvgazette.com, or follow him at twitter.com/RPritt.