Every Sunday in the eight years since becoming coach of the now nationally prominent Crater cross country program, Justin Loftus offers an optional workout for his runners to supplement their usual 7 a.m. workouts during the week.

Every Sunday in the eight years since becoming coach of the now nationally prominent Crater cross country program, Justin Loftus offers an optional workout for his runners to supplement their usual 7 a.m. workouts during the week.

"That's something the kids don't have to do, but if you want to be good, you should probably be doing," Loftus says.

Desire to be the best has never been an issue for brothers Zach and Josh Elliott. The Comets' top two runners currently hold the No. 1 and No. 2 times, respectively, in the entire state regardless of classification — an accomplishment directly linked to their exhaustive work ethic, Loftus believes.

"They are here every day, all year round," says Loftus, who considers both to be Division I-caliber runners. "Zach has missed maybe one (optional workout) in the last three years, and Josh is pretty much the same way. They are as dedicated as you can get."

The brothers are the driving force behind Crater's quest for a third straight Class 5A state title, which begins Saturday when the Comets travel to Moore Park in Klamath Falls for the Southern Sky Conference district meet.

Zach Elliott, a senior, enters with the state's best time at 15 minutes, 27 seconds, while Josh, a junior, is close behind at 15:28. Both times were set at the Brooks Harrier Classic at Bryant Park in Albany earlier this month. Those two times rank third and fourth, respectively, all-time in Crater history.

The brothers were important parts of the Comets' state title teams the last two seasons.

After playing soccer his freshman year in the fall, Zach joined the track team that spring, and though he "wasn't really successful," his passion for running intensified.

"I dedicated myself to running during the summer, and I went to every practice," Zach says.

He immediately found strong leaders on the team in Isaac Stoutenburgh and Jake Keyser. Stoutenburgh, now at the University of Oregon, was a two-time all-state performer and holds Crater's all-time mark of 15:03, set in 2005. Keyser won the Class 5A state title in 2006, and his time of 15:25 ranks second in Crater history. He currently competes for Colorado State.

"I saw Jake and Isaac and how good they were, and I thought I could make a difference by running," Zach says.

He later adds, "I saw (Jake) develop as a runner. He was a senior and the one everyone looked up to. Watching him develop into a better runner was very inspirational to me."

As a sophomore, Zach helped Crater win a state title in Keyser's senior season by finishing 11th at the state meet.

"He was a huge part of that first state championship team," Loftus says of Zach. "To get him out (on the team) was big because a lot of those runners that were coming back figured out they couldn't just slack because there was a sophomore that was going to kick their butts."

Josh, then a freshman, also emerged that season, though his sport of choice in middle school was baseball.

He admits "he was sick of the other sports" and "I was really good at running so everyone encouraged it."

"I think he wanted to see what it was all about," Loftus says of Josh. "But nobody knew he was going to be as good as he was."

Josh won the junior varsity race at the 2006 SSC district meet and earned a spot on the varsity team at the state meet, where he placed 33rd and consequently sent a message to older brother Zach that he'd have competition for household supremacy the next two seasons.

"My brother wasn't really into running in middle school, and I always thought running was kind of my thing," Zach says. "After that I thought, 'Wow, I better start stepping it up.'

"We have a certain respect for each other. It's not a bitter rivalry, it's a friendship rivalry. If he beats me, I'll congratulate him, and if I beat him, he's the same way. It's pretty cool to have a brother who's fast."

That's not to say race days aren't tense.

"It's kind of a sensitive subject bringing it up when someone beats the other one," Josh says.

Take, for instance, last year's state meet. Zach, on his way to all-state honors, placed sixth while Josh placed 15th, a disappointing end to his season, he says.

"To be honest, I didn't really like it," Josh says of Zach's higher finish. "I didn't do that good that race and he did really good. He got a lot of recognition. It was frustrating. I had a bad season last year."

While a certain competitive nature is natural between brothers so close in age, Loftus sees a significant difference this season in their interaction.

"There is definitely a sibling rivalry," Loftus says. "They both want to be number one, but there's only one guy that's going to be number one. This is the first year where they've actually figured out they can work together as opposed to comparing each other to themselves. They go at each other but they have a lot of respect for each other, too."

Adds Josh: "We definitely push each other a lot. If someone is doing better, then the other will try to keep up."

It's the competition that's had trouble keeping up this season.

Reach reporter Luke Andrews at 776-4469, or e-mail landrews@mailtribune.com