Aaron Bhatoya of Peshtigo heads toward the finish line at Saturday’s Division 2 Waupaca Sectional. EagleHerald/Jody Korch
Aaron Bhatoya of Peshtigo heads toward the finish line at Saturday’s Division 2 Waupaca Sectional. EagleHerald/Jody Korch
PESHTIGO - Aaron Bhatoya grinded and battled his way to state. Now he's primed to thrive when he gets there.

The Peshtigo senior will run at Saturday's 101st annual WIAA Boys' Cross Country Championships.

A knee injury prevented Bhatoya from running all summer. Last week, he was sidelined by an injury behind his knee near where the hamstring attaches.

He didn't run during the week leading up to sectionals, but gutted out a 10th-place finish Saturday in Waupaca to grab the final Division 2 state-qualifying spot.

Afterward, he agreed with his coach, Jim Stillman, that it was the hardest race of his life.

"I can tell he was taxed Saturday after two miles, and he knew he had to hold onto that spot," Stillman said. "Aaron's a real competitor."

Now the leg is feeling a lot better, and Bhatoya has had three good practice days this week.

"Everything is looking good for him to have a good race," Stillman said.

Last year, Bhatoya placed 27th at state - especially impressive for a first-year cross country runner. Now he's back with another year of racing experience, and the invaluable experience of having run at The Ridges Golf Course near Wisconsin Rapids. With thousands of spectators lining The Ridges' rolling hills, and about 160 competitors, it's a nerve-wracking experience.

"I think the biggest thing for him, because he's got the experience of last year he's not going to be that nervous," Stillman said.

Pacing is crucial. Last year at state, Bhatoya went out very fast and was in 10th place at one point but got bogged down in the second and third miles.

"He realizes how he has to run that second half of the race," according to Stillman. "If he can get through two miles in 10:30 to 10:40 he has a good shot at finishing in that top group."

Shorewood senior Charlie Stahl is the top returning individual in Division 2. He took fourth at state last year. Whitewater senior Brett Harms placed fifth at state last year.

Bhatoya is a highly motivated athlete who lifts weights at 6 a.m. before school. Stillman believes he's ready to pop a good race.

"I think he's close to peaking," the coach said.