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Fairmont girls runners return stately core

STARTING LINE — Members of the Fairmont Cardinals girls 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): Jaylin Miller, Lily Higgins, Ellie Ortega, Rylee Maday, Macy Hanson, Carys Gudahl, Norah Traetow, Samantha Domeier and Sara Sundblad. Middle row: Ava Terfehr, Yatzi Balderas, assistant coach Jen Kahler, head coach Bob Bonk, statistician Martin Mittelstadt, assistant coach Stew Murfield, assistant coach Holly Neusch and Emily Kerekes. Back row: Becca Lunn, Emma Gudahl, Eleanor Hamlet, Justine Eisenmenger, Tabitha Thatcher, Paige DeBoer, Bethany Thatcher, Laura Thompson and Hannah Neusch. (Photo by Greg Abel)

FAIRMONT — The Fairmont Cardinals girls cross country team used the 2018 season to rebuild after losing five seniors to graduation.

Now they are set to grow through this season and the next.

Nine varsity letterwinners return for the Cardinal girls this season including most of the usual top-five runners from races last season.

Three of last year’s four captains return in juniors Hannah Neusch and Tabitha Thatcher, along with sophomore Laura Thompson. Thompson placed 34th during the 2018 Class A state meet with a time of 19:47.1.

Cardinal head coach Bob Bonk said Neusch, Thatcher and Thompson were chosen as captains because of their work ethic.

“They’ve been at it a long time and I think they’re very dedicated,” said Bonk, whose team opens the season playing host to Friday’s Early Bird Invite at 9:30 a.m. on the Fairmont High School campus. “Laura has run varsity since seventh grade, she’s a sophomore now and she’s a two-time state qualifier and all-state runner.

“Tabitha has a lot of experience, she’s run in several state meets. Probably no one works harder than Hannah Neusch, she has gotten better every year and I think she will get better again this year.

“I think it’s because, they’re among the older girls, but they are surely as dedicated as everybody, more dedicated probably. And all of them were captains last year, and I can tell the difference from last year to this year as far as knowing what to do and being on top of things. They really do stuff that I don’t think about, which is good.”

Thompson, Neusch and Thatcher will lead a team of 22 runners spread across varsity, junior varsity, and junior high, at least for the beginning of the season, Bonk said. This year, the Cardinals have two seniors, four juniors, four sophomores, four freshmen, an eighth-grader and seven seventh-graders.

“The ones who have run varsity a lot are the three tri-captains and those girls have done a wonderful job this summer going to races and just developing enthusiasm,” Bonk said. “… Emma Gudahl has run varsity quite a bit and she looks quite a bit improved over previous years at this point. … Becca Lunn and Sara Sundblad and Eleanor Hamlet would all kind of be in that group.

“There are four younger girls who we’re going to start running in junior high, but once we get into the fourth or fifth meet of the year we’ll probably give them a chance to run with the older girls. That would be Ava Terfehr, Carys Gudahl, Macy Hanson and Ellie Ortega. They’re all new girls, three are seventh-graders and Ava wasn’t out last year as a seventh-grader. I think with a mixture of the older and the younger, we could actually have a better team this year than we had last year. I’m hopeful of that.”

This year’s mix of runners will face tough competition through the year and during the section meet. Bonk said Belle Plaine has remained the favorite to win Section 2A, but Fairmont is in a mix of at least four teams that could claim the second state-qualifying spot.

“Girls, it’s especially hard to predict before you’ve had any races, more than boys,” Bonk said. “We’ve got some young girls that are definitely going to make a difference and other people will, too. You don’t really know until Milaca, probably until midseason when you’ve had a couple big meets, then you have an idea. Until then, it’s all speculation.”

One thing Bonk won’t have to speculate about is his team’s chemistry. He said because of how the captains on both the girls’ and boys’ team have been scheduling team outings and get-togethers, he isn’t worried about the family aspect of the team.

He said because there are fewer members on both teams this year, each runner will get the individual attention that can help them grow, but he said it’s not too late for interested students to join the team.

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