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Cardinal girls runners look to continue stately run

NEAR THE STARTING LINE — Members of the Fairmont Cardinals girls cross country team that opens the season by playing host to the Early Bird Invitational at 9:30 a.m. Friday on the Fairmont High School campus include, front row (l-r): Sara Sundblad, Brooklyn Pfeffer, Corene Moeller, Jaylin Miller, Lacy DeJaynes, Lily Higgins, Kara Fischer and Ashley Muller. Second row: Hannah Neusch, Laura Thompson, Emma Gudahl, Tailyr Wittmus, Ava Gillmore, Mia Acosta, Eleanor Hamlet, Becca Lunn and Emily Kerekes. Third row: Kobi Malo, Yatzi Balderas, Bethany Thatcher, Tabitha Thatcher, Makena Rodriguez, Sarah Krumholz, Hannah Linse and Angelica Kerekes. Back row: Assistant coach Mark Determan, assistant coach Jen Kahler, assistant coach Holly Neusch, head coach Bob Bonk, manager Martin Mittelstadt and assistant coach Stew Murfield. Not pictured: Brenna Abel. (Photo by Greg Abel)

FAIRMONT — Some teams rebuild when they lose top talent, and some keep on winning.

The Fairmont girls cross country team lost five runners from last year’s team to graduation — more than any other school in the Big South Conference, but Cardinals head coach Bob Bonk said he isn’t worried.

“In cross country, typically you will see a situation like what we have this year where you might have one or two varsity kids per grade,” said Bonk, whose team plays host to the Early Bird Invitational at 9:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 24, at the Fairmont High School campus. “Nine is the official roster size for section and state, and last year, five of our girls were seniors. We definitely graduated an unusual number of top runners. Of the top teams in the state, we lost by far the most. Some of the teams didn’t graduate anybody.

“On some websites, we are ranked 12th in the preseason rankings, which would mean we’d be at state and I’d be happy with that. I don’t think it would be reasonable to expect to have a top-five goal again. We’d like to make it to state again, that’s the biggest goal we have as a team right now.”

Senior Sarah Krumholz, sophomores Hannah Neusch and Tabitha Thatcher, and freshman Laura Thompson will take the reigns as Fairmont’s captains this season.

Bonk said Krumholz and Thompson have the highest expectations after earning all-state running honors last season and putting up two of the best seasons, by grade, in Fairmont girls cross country history.

The Big South Conference will leave Bonk’s team with a tough road to make it back to state.

Belle Plaine placed a close second behind the Cardinals in the Section 2A Meet last year and didn’t graduate a single runner. Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial placed third and only graduated one member from its top team.

Bonk said Belle Plaine is the preseason favorite to win the section and it is ranked in the top 10 of multiple websites preseason rankings. He said his team will have a tough path, but preseason rankings could be vastly different from how the season plays out.

“Our goal is to make it to state and it’s going to be very competitive with them for sure,” Bonk said. “One thing about girls cross country though, until a month into the season or so, you can’t really tell what’s going on because a couple of young girls can all of a sudden make a huge difference on a team. I would say that would be a pretty major factor. A month from now, I’ll probably have a much better idea.”

Bonk said he is happy with the young talent on the team and is hopeful the younger participants will grow throughout the year.

“I think there’s a couple of other girls here, Sara (Sundblad) and Becca (Lunn), they’ve really had a great summer and put on a lot of miles,” Bonk said. “They’ll probably be in the varsity picture, and we have a group of four or five younger girls, Emma Gudahl and three eighth-graders, Corene (Moeller) and Brooklyn (Pfeffer) and Lily Higgins. I think that group will become the varsity and the top of junior varsity. I don’t really know how that will all sort itself out, but we do have some potentially good talent right there. I think we’re hoping they come a long way this year.”

With Krumholz and Thompson returning as all-state runners, Bonk said he would love to see them repeat, but girls cross country in Minnesota has a lot of tough competitors fighting for the top spots.

“Right now, for girls, is just amazing,” Bonk said. “The top bunch of girls in the state in Class A are actually probably better than AA. Girls cross country is really good right now and I think those two girls have a great shot to repeat as all-state, but that doesn’t necessarily transform into top-10 or top-five finishes.”

Bonk said many people tend to focus on results when they look at the success of a cross country team, but he sees many ways to measure the success of a season.

“I think when we talk about goals, we always think about places and performance, but a big part of what I think the sport is about is becoming fit and seeing personal improvement,” Bonk said. “We keep a lot of records on personal-bests and sometimes it’s more thrilling to have a girl or boy near the back improve their time than anything. That’s one thing we definitely focus on. It’s not just the top few, but everyone working hard and getting better.”

Bonk’s team has three younger runners serving as leaders this year, but he said he believes they have proven themselves and earned their spot.

“We have, especially for the girls, some younger captains this year,” Bonk said. “But I think those girls have surely shown they have the dedication and the talent to earn those spots. They’ve done a nice job of leading the group this summer and getting us ready to start, I’m excited about that.”

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