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Cardinal girls and five area runners rev up for state

No. 11 Fairmont girls team returns to ‘A’ state meet

HEADED TO ST. OLAF — Members of the Fairmont Cardinals girls cross country team competing at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Class A state meet at St. Olaf College in Northfield include, front row (l-r): Assistant coach Holly Neusch, Ellie Ortega, Macy Hanson, Carys Gudahl and Sara Sundblad. Back row: Assistant coach Stew Murfield, Laura Thompson, Eleanor Hamlet, Tabitha Thatcher, Hannah Neusch, Emma Gudahl and head coach Bob Bonk. (Photo by Greg Abel)

FAIRMONT — Last year, the Fairmont Cardinals girls ended their run of five consecutive cross country team appearances at the Class A state meet.

This year, the No. 11-ranked Cardinals look to begin a new streak.

For the 25th time in team history, Fairmont is headed to St. Olaf College in Northfield for the Class A state girls race.

“We have several goals,” said Cardinal head coach Bob Bonk. “The first base goal would be to be in the top 12. There’s eight first-place (section) teams and eight second-place teams coming in, so that would mean we either beat one or more first-place teams or were in the upper half of second-place teams. There’s something magical about the top-10. Top-10 songs, top-10 movies, whatever. That, I think, would be a more satisfying achievement, it would exceed our rankings. And of the 24 previous times, 22 have been top-10 finishes.

“I’d say maybe the next step would be top 8. That puts you in the top half and it definitely means you’re beating some of the section champs. Top 5 would be a real reach goal and a ‘yippee’ goal would be top 3. Top 3 is pretty special because they get on the stage, they get medals, all that stuff. We have kind of, rather than a goal, we have a bunch of goals in progression that we’d like to achieve. The first goal of course was just to get there and that, 12 months ago, didn’t seem very likely.”

Saturday marks the 12th time the Cardinal girls will run at the state meet in the past 15 years. In the girls’ 24 previous appearances, Fairmont finished third in 1989 and 2014, second in 1986 and 1987, and won the state championship in both 1988 and 2016.

Bonk said going into the year, he didn’t expect the Cardinal girls to make it back to the state race because multiple section teams that finished above Fairmont last year didn’t have any major changes. But Fairmont did.

“I’d say there’s two (main changes),” Bonk said. “The sevies (seventh graders). We’ve had seventh graders before on varsity, but not probably three this talented. … This group, in the section they were 2nd, 3rd and 5th on the team and I didn’t really see that coming. The other thing is, the older girls that we did have coming back had good summers. … They went to a lot of races, I thought they ran a lot of miles, so most of the girls coming back have improved and are running the best they have in their lives. So it wasn’t just the new ones, it was the desire and work ethic of the older girls, too. Maybe if I would even say a third thing, sometimes there could be some friction, but I think the older girls have done a wonderful job of bringing the younger girls into the group and just treating them like everybody else.”

The standout seventh graders Bonk referred to –Macy Hanson, Carys Gudahl and Ellie Ortega — have all been regular contributing times in Fairmont’s races since the Milaca MegaMeet.

Hanson has regularly finished second for the Cardinals, while Carys Gudahl, Ortega and juniors Tabitha Thatcher and Hannah Neusch have run as a pack in many races.

Bonk said though nearly half his top-seven runners are comprised of seventh graders, he doesn’t see that youth as a disadvantage. He said new runners might be more likely to treat the state meet as if it were a regular meet.

“They’ll be nervous before the gun goes off, but I think as they process over days and months, they’ll think it was really great,” Bonk said of the state experience. “The good news is, we go to Milaca and there’s actually less people in the race here than there are in Milaca. The quality is obviously the best in the state, so that offsets a little bit, but it’s not like these girls haven’t run in a big meet before. Even the I-90 has a lot of people in it. We try to schedule things so that they aren’t going into it with just small-meet experience.”

The Cardinals once again will be led by sophomore standout Laura Thompson. Thompson placed 47th as a seventh grader on the Cardinals’ state championship team in 2016, then finished 14th as an eighth grader. Last year, in her first race as an individual qualifier, Thompson finished 34th.

In the 16-team meet, the Cardinals will have to compete with two-time defending champion Class A No. 1-ranked Perham as well as six more top-10 teams from last season. No. 5-ranked Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted, No. 4-ranked Luverne, No. 2-ranked Staples-Motley, No. 6-ranked Lake City, Mesabi East of Arlington and Plymouth all return from last year’s top 10.

But there is an opening at the top of the girls’ individual competition as last year’s top two finishers, Grace Ping and Lauren Ping, will not compete this year, leaving the highest finisher from last year’s race as third-place Morgan Gehl of Murray County Central/Fulda.

Gehl is ranked second in Class A behind only Natasha Sortland of Zumbrota-Mazeppa/Kenyon-Wana-mingo. Four more top-10 finishers from 2018’s girls race join Gehl in Mesabi East’s No. 6-ranked Ava Hill, Canby/Minneota’s Grace Drietz, Luverne’s No. 3-ranked Tenley Nelson and Providence’s Madeline Kelly who all return.

Martin County West/Martin Luther’s Marissa Whitehead returns for her fourth state race. Whitehead was the Class A girls runner-up in her first appearance, then placed seventh as a freshman and 84th as a sophomore last year. Along with Whitehead, teammate Katie Hartke will run in her first state race.

In the boys’ race, Blue Earth Area’s Grant Strukel returns for his fourth state appearance, looking for his first all-state time, while Fairmont’s Will Saari heads back to the state race after placing 116th last year. MCW/ML’s Jake Lewis will make his first appearance at the state meet after finishing seventh at the Section 2A meet last week.

Bonk said Saari’s experience last season has helped him build goals for this year.

“I would like to see him exceed what he had done last year, a top-half finish would be great,” Bonk said. “When you count individuals and teams together, there’s 176 runners and so last year he was just a little over 100, so if he could get in the top 88 I think that would be a good move up for him.”

Strukel, Saari and Lewis will compete in a field that includes nine of the top 10 finishers from last year, including No. 3-ranked Geno Uhrbom of Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin. Uhrbom returns to defend his title.

Mora’s Cooper Lennox, Staples-Motley’s No. 1-ranked Emmet Anderson, No. 6-ranked Brandon O’Hara of Perham, Bailey Evenson of Perham, Ely’s No. 5-ranked Luke Olson, West Central Area’s No. 2-ranked Jacob Bright, Henry Snider of Mounds Park Academy of St. Paul and Cole Nowacki of East Grand Forks all return from the 2018 top 10.

The Fairmont girls, Whitehead and Hartke will take off from the starting line at 1 p.m. Saturday, while Saari, Strukel and Lewis will hear the starting horn at 2 p.m. St. Olaf College also is hosting the Class AA races in the morning and a college football game, so Bonk advises any spectators to get to the college early to not miss the action.

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