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Fairmont cross country captains lend helping hands

MAKING STRIDES — Fairmont cross country co-captains Hannah Neusch (left) and Tabitha Thatcher (middle), along with teammate Eleanor Hamlet, sprint from the starting line during the Cardinals’ home-opening triangular Aug. 27 on the Fairmont High School campus. Neusch and Thatcher have provided solid leadership for their fellow runners this fall. (Photo by Kyle McAreavy)

FAIRMONT — For the past three years, seniors Hannah Neusch and Tabitha Thatcher have played key roles on the Fairmont Cardinals’ girls cross country team as captains.

With all the changes and obstacles to sports this season, including local high schools spending 30 percent more time away from competition, Fairmont head coach Bob Bonk said the roles his captains have filled recently have become even more important.

“They’re always helping, especially this year,” Bonk said. “Even right now, we can’t, I can’t be with them for a couple weeks here and I know they’re getting the girls running and trying to keep everyone as fit as possible. All the other team’s in our conference can still practice and compete during this down time. It’s kind of a big disadvantage to not be able to do that, but I know that they’re keeping the girls going.”

Despite all the extra efforts put forth by Neusch and Thatcher, their final prep cross country seasons officially ended after the Class A No. 7-ranked Cardinals defeated Big South Conference rival Waseca during a regular-season triangular Thursday in St. Peter.

Due to Martin County’s recent high spike in active COVID-19 cases, the Minnesota Department of Health issued a minimum two-week switch to distance learning academically and no extracurricular activities.

Now, Fairmont will not be able to run in either the BSC Meet on Oct. 10 in Redwood Falls or the Section 2A Meet on Oct. 13 in Montgomery.

In retrospect, Thatcher has been a staple in the Cardinal girls top five since filling in for Sarah Krumholz during the team’s fifth-place finish in the 2015 Class A state race at St. Olaf College in Northfield, placing 156th in 22:16.7. Thatcher then was part of the Fairmont state championship roster in 2016, placing 100th in 20:56. Her finish helped lead the Cardinal girls to their first state title since 1988.

Neusch became a regular in the girls varsity lineup the following year, helping the Cardinals to a fifth-place finish in 2017 and an 11th-place spot last season.

“One of our best runners (Krumholz) fell off the stage the night before state,” Thatcher said of her first state race in 2015. “I remember we went for a walk and Mr. Bonk told me I’d be running. I think that was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life, but it ended up being one of my best races.”

Now the two seniors play an important role, helping bring along the youth that has filled the Fairmont girls team the past two seasons.

During the 2019 season, when the Cardinal girls placed 11th at the state race largely on the strength of multiple standout seventh-graders, Bonk said Neusch and Thatcher were instrumental in helping the new girls grow accustomed to varsity races.

“Last year, we had three seventh-graders move up to varsity, which hardly ever happens,” Bonk said. “They were just very happy to have the new girls and they are very encouraging and welcoming. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, they’re going to beat us and take our spot,’ nothing like that. It was more that they were grateful to have the new girls. And I think, when it comes to warmups and what to eat and all that, they’ve been like big sisters really.”

After spending her sophomore and junior cross country seasons in more usual years, as a captain able to learn from her elders, Neusch said the planning needed each day has been the biggest change in her role during the strange 2020 season.

“My first year as a captain, I learned how to be a leader from the older seniors who led along with me,” Neusch said. “My second year, I got to use those skills to push my team to state. This year, being a captain involves a lot more planning and keeping everyone informed as things change so quickly.”

Thatcher said the biggest change she has noticed is how she thinks about her own races and the team as a whole.

“I think the main thing that has changed for me is my focus has gone away from simply trying to run as fast as I can to just enjoying the team,” Thatcher said. “I used to get very stressed about my time and how I was running and if our team was good. But as I’ve gotten older, and especially this year since we only have small meets, I realized how much this team means to me, no matter if we win or lose. I just love being around everyone and trying to encourage everyone.

“I think that’s the most important role of a captain, especially in a sport as mentally tough as cross country. My teammates have really become like my family.”

Alongside her mother, assistant cross country coach Holly Neusch, Hannah Neusch said she has been running since childhood because Holly would bring her along to races.

Meanwhile, Thatcher said she started running cross country in sixth grade, when sixth-graders were still allowed on the team, after running a 5K with her parents as a fifth-grader and loving the feeling of a race.

After the pair joined the team, they became running partners, not just in practice or while exercising around town, but during races as well, mostly staying within a minute of each other in competition.

In their most recent state competitions, Thatcher ran a time of 21:14.8 for 118th overall, while Neusch finished a minute later in 22:15.1 for 160th.

This season, the pair has stayed close during the Cardinals weekly triangulars, regularly finishing in the top six spots overall.

Neusch said she enjoys running and participating in cross country because of the friendships and community the sport has brought her.

“My favorite thing about running is the environment around it,” Neusch said. “Everyone pushes themselves and others to be the best that they can be every single day. That has created life-long friendships for me and I know that the running community will always support me.”

Both said they hope to continue their running careers in college, Neusch at South Dakota State University, where she plans to major in exercise science before moving to grad school in the hope of becoming a physical trainer, and Thatcher at a school she has yet to decide on.

Thatcher and Neusch will continue to help lead the Fairmont cross country program and its many youthful members as not just excellent runners, but good people.

“They’re just great people in a lot of different ways,” Bonk said of his senior captains. “I’m sure they’ll be very successful in life as they go forward. Not just as runners, but more importantly, in whatever their career is. They’re winners in every sense of the word. I’m going to miss them. They’ve been a huge part of our team for a long, long time.”

As an example of their lives outside of cross country, Neusch asked to include a wish for a safe harvest to all farmers after her grandfather, Chuck, suffered a farming accident last week.

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