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Cardinals boys running lineup small in numbers but skilled

OFF & RUNNING — Members of the Fairmont Cardinals boys cross country team playing host to the season-opening Early Bird Invitational at 9:30 a.m. Friday on the Fairmont High School campus include, front row (l-r): Maxwell Baker, Tait Johnson and Gavin Artner. Middle row: Alex Kastning, assistant coach Jen Kahler, head coach Bob Bonk, statistician Martin Mittelstadt, assistant coach Stew Murfield, assistant coach Holly Neusch and Sebastian Castro. Back row: Ben Moeller, Tyrell Zieske, Tony Ortega, William Saari, Connor Artner and Alex Cruz. Not pictured: Will Niestrath, Andrew Haugen and Iker Juarez. (Photo by Greg Abel)

FAIRMONT — Last season, the Fairmont Cardinals boys cross country team looked to build upon the success of the 2017 season.

Now the Cardinals are looking to continue their climb after placing fourth at the Section 2A Meet in 2018.

Two of Fairmont’s top three runners from last season return in juniors William Saari and Connor Artner. Saari placed 116th in the 176-runner Class A state meet last year with a time of 17:39.8. Saari and Artner join senior Tony Ortega as captains this season.

Fairmont head coach Bob Bonk said the trio was chosen as captains because they are dedicated to cross country and did well going to summer races. He added that senior Tyrell Zieske also has been a good leader.

This year’s boys team is made up of two seniors, two juniors, one freshman, five eighth-graders and four seventh-graders. Bonk said the team might struggle because of a lack of depth.

“Last year I thought they got everything they could out of themselves to finish fourth out of over 20 teams (at the section),” said Bonk, whose team opens the season playing host to the Early Bird Invite at 9:30 a.m. Friday on the Fairmont High School campus. “And we could have a very solid top four, but we’re just very young beyond that. It’s kind of too early to say, but I would be delighted quite frankly if we could match that.

“I think, especially with those four upperclassmen (seniors Ortega and Zieske and juniors Artner and Saari), the focus will be on doing as well as you can individually. Will qualified for state last year and he and Connor are about even right now. Tony is not too far behind them and Tyrell, I think, will have his best year this year as a senior. It’s tough when the fifth person is going to be a freshman or an eighth-grader with no varsity experience at all, and not just the fifth, but the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth (runners).

“I’d say there are four guys there that could fill those spots. Freshman Alex Cruz and probably three eighth-graders in Gavin Artner, Ben Moeller and Will Niestrath, who’s a new student who moved here from Missouri. Depth-wise, we’re hurting. There’s no nice way to say it. The guys are going to do their best and improve, we’ll see where we end up.”

Wherever the Cardinal boys end up, they will face tough competition. Bonk said St. James Area comes into the season as the likely favorite to win the Section 2A Meet because its top three runners from last season have returned and the Saints begin the season ranked seventh in the state. He said Mankato Loyola is also a possible favorite because it opens the season ranked 12th in the state.

Bonk said to this point, practices have gone well and most runners are where he and the rest of the coaching staff expected them to be, but he said Ortega has taken steps forward from last season to the start of practice.

“There is a wide range of ability and experience and summer preparation,” Bonk said. “Everyone is doing well for where they’re at. … I would say there probably isn’t a big surprise girls or boys. Tony Ortega has made a big step forward from this same period of time last year. The folks we expected to do well are doing well and the folks we expected to be just starting out are just starting out.”

With many runners just starting out, Bonk will rely on his coaching staff for help. Stew Murfield returns as an assistant coach, while Holly Neusch has gone from a volunteer to a paid assistant this season after Mark Detterman did not return. Jen Kahler has stayed on as a volunteer when she can.

“They’re great with the kids and I’m very fortunate to have them on staff,” Bonk said.

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