HERON LAKE - Four years ago it would have been hard to believe Heron Lake-Okabena would be sending three cross country runners to state 2014.
That’s mostly because four years ago, HL-O didn’t have a cross country program.
Now, in just its third year since being revived for the 2012 season, freshmen Rachel Salentiny and MaKayla Edwards along with Logan Knutson are doing their part to put a once strong team back on the map.
“In the beginning it was just us three girls (Edwards, Salentiny and Brianna Preston) and five boys. We only had eight people on the whole team,” Edwards said. “We were happy placing as individuals on the girls team but we wanted to get a team score. So we just started asking girls in our class to come out for the conference and section meets.”
The section 3A meet in 2012 was the first varsity action for three of the five girls on the team. The Wildcats - with just five seventh-graders running - scored 290 points and placed ninth. One year later, they made a remarkable leap by tallying just 181 points and taking fifth in the section. More importantly, two of the “original three” girls qualified for state.
That was Edwards and Salentiny who, at the time, were only eighth-graders. Once there, Salentiny put together the fourth-best finish - for a girl or boy - in program history when she took 13th with a 4,000-meter time of 15:20.5 to earn All-State honors. With the top 25 earning that distinction, Edwards wasn’t far off. She finished 35th overall at 15:43.3.
This year, as a team of mostly freshmen, Edwards and Salentiny took seventh and ninth at sections to earn a second straight trip to state. Preston, Cheyenne Schaffer and Taylor Johanning helped improve the team score to 138, just 17 points out of second.
The team has improved greatly since its resurrection. Edwards and Salentiny plan to keep that trend going when they run at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Olaf College in Northfield.
“I have got to get into the top 25,” Edwards said of her expectations this year. “I was so close last year. It was so aggravating that I didn’t get it.”
“I want to get all-state again this year,” Salentiny said. “I don’t want to have a letdown from last year and now I know the course, so it should be that much easier. But I’m not worried about it. I’m just going to go out there and try to do it. My goal is to get into the top 25 but that doesn’t bring any extra pressure.”
The escalation of the boys’ program has been much different than when it first started in 1991, when the school was known as Heron Lake-Okabena-Lakefield. The Silver Bullet boys - led by current Murray County Central coach Dominick Damm - won the section meet in both 1992 and 1993. As underdogs in 1992, they placed second at state as a team when the program was just in its second season. The next year they were ranked No. 1 in the state all season and went into state as heavy favorites. Despite a stronger performance than the year before, Mesabi East was able to beat them by 11 points to make them settle for runner-up.
HLOL got one more state trip on the girls side in 1996 before merging with Windom due to dwindling numbers prior to the 2007-08 school year. For five years, Southwestern United - as it was known at the time - didn’t have a team.
This time around, it took the Wildcat boys three years to field a full team at the varsity level. The stalwart of that group who has been with the team since 2012 is Knutson, who earned his first trip to state this season.
Not only is the sophomore making his first appearance at state; he’ll be the first boy from the program to do so since that 1993 HLOL squad that placed second. He did so by taking seventh at last week’s Section 3A meet.
“Last year I made the big leap up to varsity and I never thought I’d be that good,” Knutson said. “It’s cool to be one of the best boys runners that our school’s had since 1993.”
With the numbers increasing each year, he hopes his success will help the Wildcat boys continue to improve during his junior and senior seasons.
“It makes me wanna get better and be a leader every day,” he said.
For HL-O head coach Les Knutson, the success is anything but a surprise. In 2011 - when Logan Knutson was a seventh grader and both Edwards and Salentiny were just sixth graders - he brought them to a meet and saw what they were capable of.
“That’s when I really knew they had potential,” coach Knutson said. “I just wanted them to get a taste.”
He didn’t find out until Aug. 20, 2012, that Southwestern United would indeed have a cross country program again. Since then, he’s seen it improve on both sides with this year’s state qualifiers providing the foundation.
Salentiny was the first to truly make some noise at the varsity level when she placed second at the Turkey Trot in Worthington. After Edwards reached state in 2013, he saw her continued improvement during preseason workouts this year and knew she was in store for a big year.
Logan Knutson had a strong season as a freshman but was unable to compete at sections due to injury. He truly hit his stride with a 5,000-meter personal-best time of 17:18 in Fairmont this season and has maintained that pace ever since.
“Logan really lays it on the line every day in practice,” coach Knutson said. “In fact, we’ve had to kind of get him to pace himself a little more on his easy days. I think he’s done that. Progressively he’s become a smarter cross country runner.”
Only Luverne - an established squad with plenty of past success - matched HL-O’s total number of state entrants this year out of all area teams. On Saturday, just one day after Halloween, Knutson, Edwards and Salentiny running on the state’s biggest stage will be physical proof that HL-O cross country has come back from the dead.
“The girls were really awesome this year,” Edwards said. “We were definitely better than we ever have been. We got like four team titles and all of the girls got better.”
But, she added.
“I think we’ll be even better next year.”