FAIRMONT - At last fall's Fairmont girls cross country awards banquet, eighth-grader Jenna Pavich was voted as the Cardinals' rookie of the year.
This fall, Pavich along with her young counterparts, will help lead the Cardinals in the hopes of contending for the program's 19th South Central Conference championship.
"We are a young team this year, but I would not say that our young runners are inexperienced," said Fairmont head coach Bob Bonk. "Even though a lot of our top runners are young, they have had varsity experience in either cross country, track or both in the last year."
BORN TO RUN — Members of the Fairmont girls cross country team opening the season by playing host to the Early Bird Invitational at 9:30 a.m. Friday at Fairmont High School include, front row (l-r): Elora Ramon, Lydia Johnson, Rachel Botzet, Anna Hernes, Brenna Wohlrabe, Sasha Riley, Sarah Ostlie, Jaclyn Friese, Katiana Fischer, Miranda Mathiason and Julie Fleming. Middle row: Assistant coach Stew Murfield, Bethany Linse, Anna Sundblad, Annie Mittelstadt, Sarah Bartz, Emilee Moeller, Emma Koehler, Hannah Olson, Lexi Fischer, Madison Pierce, Emily Haugen and head coach Bob Bonk. Back row: Megan Hawkins, Grace Higgins, Lizzy Subbert, Alyssa Fetters, Hannah Johnson, Jenna Pavich, Molly Hawkins, Joni Becker, Iliana Ramon, Madeline Mathiason and Alicia Darnell. Not pictured: Rachel Poppe and assistant coach Mark Determan. (Photo by Leanna Becker)
After a summer of putting in a lot of miles, the Cardinals return 12 letterwinners and are motivated for their first meet of the season - the Early Bird Invitational at 9:30 a.m. Friday at Fairmont High School.
"With this team, the girls did a great job of running this summer. Coming into the first week of practice we were able to jump right into workouts and that is really great considering how short the season can be," said Bonk.
Junior co-captain Katiana Fischer is a two-time returning letterwinner and, along with Jaclyn Friese, co-captain Sasha Riley and Sarah Ostlie, and will provide veteran experience to the still improving young runners.
Fischer is coming off an 80th-place individual finish in the Class A state cross country meet last fall at St. Olaf College in Northfield.
"I don't think it would be stretching it at all to say that, so far in practice, I think there are 14 girls who are capable of seeing some varsity-meet running," said Bonk. "While some of those girls might be young, eighth or ninth graders, I think we are a running saavy team. And they want to be pushed in practice like experienced runners."
Along with Pavich, who topped the Cardinal finishers in the team time trials to cap the opening week of practice with a 4K time of 17:27 at Cedar Park, Fairmont could get some top performances from Emily Haugen, Molly Hawkins, Hannah Johnson, Anna Hernes and Emilee Moeller.
"I think that the depth we have is really going to be a huge asset for us this season," said Bonk. "In most of our meets, we don't have to declare a varsity or junior varsity team, and so it'll be just the top seven finishers who score for us. But those top 14 or so athletes are fairly close time-wise and that could make for some great finishes."
Fairmont will have to face tough competition again this fall, with the likes of SCC and Section 2A champion Waseca and Valley Conference and Section 2A runner-up Martin County West, who both return a majority of their respective lineups.
"Both Waseca and Martin County West are going to be tough challenges for us this year. They were both very good last year," said Bonk. "But I think our schedule fits really well with this team. We will see both of those teams, and some other top teams in big meets and see where they are at against top competition early. I think if these girls know where they are compared to the competition and know where they need to get to, they will work hard to do that."
In addition to Friday's season-opening Early Bird Invite, the Cardinals will play host to the annual Fairmont Invite on Sept. 16 and I-90 Invite on Oct. 3 at Cedar Creek Park, in addition to traveling for a handful of challenging meets.
The Cardinals start with the Mountain Lake Area Invite next Wednesday in Mountain Lake, followed by the Montgomery/Tri-City United Invite on Sept. 5 in Montgomery.
The Fairmont Invite splits up the Worthington Invite and Milaca Mega Meet during a three-week span, and the St. James Invite will cap the competition before the SCC Meet on Oct. 8 at Riverside Town & Country Club outside of Blue Earth.
"These girls this year are a lot of fun to coach. They all seem to get along, but work hard and push each other to get better. I think it will be an exciting team to watch and see how we can progress through the season," said Bonk.