Walkerville senior Shane Achterhof’s goal has been clear from the start of the season: Win the state championship.

That step, the final one, is now directly in front of Achterhof after he claimed the regional championship, his third in a row, Saturday at Benzie Central.

The Wildcat senior finished seventh at last year’s state meet, battling a muddy course, and three of the six runners that finished ahead of him graduated. One of the remaining three, Nik Pettinga from Saugatuck, moved up to Division 3. He finished only seven seconds behind the top returning runner in D-4, Coleman Clark of Carson City-Crystal.

Achterhof will enter the finals ranked #3 based on regional times. Clark is one of the two runners ahead of him, by barely a second. The other is the other returning D-4 runner that finished ahead of him last year, Breckenridge’s Mason Sumner. Sumner has been the #1 guy in the state all year; he didn’t run at the same regional as Achterhof, but he’ll enter with a time 23 seconds faster, up from six at state last year.

Achterhof saw Sumner at Portage, and Sumner got him by 17 seconds. However, Achterhof was still working his way back to full strength after an injury early in the season briefly slowed him down. He said Oct. 10 at the Oceana County meet that he felt like he was on his way back.

“I feel like I could cut it close, get down there,” Achterhof said.

The senior said he battled the mental obstacles inherent in fighting back from injury early in the season, but with help from coach Michelle Sweet and his teammates, he powered through.

“it’s been tough running through injuries and the pain and slower times and losing to guys,” Achterhof said. “My coach has really been on me to stay confident in myself. Having a guy like Alex Sheehy to run with every day has been really nice to keep up with easy training rather than by yourself through injuries.”

Sheehy, who was also all-state last season with Achterhof and will be in the running to do so again, spent the early parts of the season running much closer to his teammate than usual. Achterhof has since opened the gap back up to close to a minute, but he said Sheehy’s support and competition has been a big help to him.

“It’s easier to train with someone than by yourself,” Achterhof said. “Having someone there to push you (helps). We push each other all the time. We’re best friends, so it’s just nice to have someone there to run with every day.”

Achterhof will be making his fourth trip to state on Saturday, so he’s become familiar with the course at Michigan International Speedway. Last November, heavy rains the week of the race resulted in a muddy and treacherous course. This year, the forecast leading up to Saturday is a little more promising, and Achterhof said he’ll be prepared.

“Sophomore year was my first year being up there (and expecting to be) all-state for sure, and I had a really hard time at state,” Achterhof said. Last year I just didn’t have a good race with all the mud. This year, I’m confident. I know the course. I know where I want to make some moves and we’ll see how the race goes.”