NORTHFIELD -- As they have done all season long, the well-balanced Windom Area High School varsity boys’ cross country squad combined a trio of stellar lead-run performances with steady runs from its other four runners Saturday morning and produced a score low enough for a fourth-place team finish at the Class A State Meet on the campus of St. Olaf College in Northfield.
Pacing the impressive team effort, which bettered the point totals of 12 other qualifying teams, were seniors John Irwin, Nickolas Green and Isaac Tade. All three Eagles were among the first 43 runners in the 176-finisher field to complete the 5,000-meter trek around the soccer fields, ponds and sloping tree-lined trails of the course which has hosted the state meet annually since 1992.
Irwin, who capped his exceptional high school cross country career with a strong ninth-place overall finish and earned a trip to the post-race awards stage to claim a large individual medal, was most-pleased with his team’s performance Saturday.
“What makes this so special this year is coming up here with the whole team,” said Irwin, who ran the St. Olaf course last year as a qualifiying individual and placed 40th overall. “With all of my teammates here with me -- getting a community send-off, learning the course together on Friday, going out to eat as a team, staying overnight, warming up together, getting mentally prepared, all of those things -- it just seemed like the way it should feel, like it was just another race for our team.”
Going on fast, Irwin put himself up among the leaders early, running the opening mile in 4:59.2 and positioning himself in ninth place. Irwin was eighth at two miles (10:20.1) before slipping back to about 12th.
“It was pretty intense from the start,” he said. “I knew that I went out fast, but I had to if I was going to finish up where I wanted, too.”
Coming out of the woods, with about 500 meters to go, Irwin was in 10th place, but was challenging for ninth.
Always a strong finisher, Irwin outkicked Blake School senior Michael Mitchell up the final hill and entered the chute with a new all-time personal record (PR) time of 16:13.1. Mitchell was clocked at 16:15.3.
Not far ahead of Irwin was a closely-contested race for the individual championship as Mound Park Academy junior Declan Dahlberg (15:56.9), LaCrescent junior Matt Steiger (15:57.1) and Lake City senior Carl Kozslowski (15:57.3) finished within .4 of a seconds of each other.
Defending state champion Zach Emery, a senior from LaCrescent, finished fourth (16:01.6), followed by times of 16:02.4, 16:03.5, 16:04 and 16:08.5 in places 5-8, respectively.
Three other Section 3A runners earned All-State (Top 25) certificates from the Cross Country Coaches Association. Central Minnesota Christian senior Matthew Van Eps (11th, 16:16.2), Lac qui Parle Valley/Dawson-Boyd junior Keiser Freetly (17th, 16:28.2) and Canby/Minneota junior Anthony Wollum (25th, 16:46.2) joined Irwin with that honor.
While four boys from the section were in the first 25, six more were among the first 43 and a total of 11 Section 3A runners finished in the Top 49.
Redwood Valley senior Carter Menz (31st, 16:52.2), Pipestone Area senior Matthew Kennedy (34th, 16:56.7), Green (38th, 16:58.3), Heron Lake-Okabena senior Logan Knutson (41st, 17:01.1), LQPV/D-B freshman Mike Kvaal (42nd, 17:01.4), Tade (43rd, 17:01.5) and Montevideo senior Kurt TeBeest (49th, 17:08.3) completed the list of Section 3 runners who finished among the race’s top 28 percent.
“That says a lot about our section,” summed up Tade. “We’re pretty competitive down in our corner of the state.”
That competitiveness among Windom’s squad certainly helped the Eagles perform well Saturday in the meet’s team competition.
Defending champion Mora’s total of 93 (5-7-9-28-44) edged perennial power Perham’s score of 99 (11-13-17-22-36) by just six points for the team title.
LaCrescent, paced by 1-3 scores up front, along with 30-40-49 from its third, fourth and fifth runners, notched a third-best score of 123.
Windom’s top three (Irwin, Green and Tade) were ninth, 38th and 43rd overall, but in the team scoring -- counting only the placings of the runners from the 16 competing teams -- they were scored in places 6-18-21, giving the Eagles a mere 45 points among their top three.
Completing Windom’s fourth-place scoring total of 166 (6-18-21-60-61) were senior veteran Jae Carlson (117th overall, 60th team scoring) and eighth-grader Cameron Alm (119, 61) with nearly identical times of 17:53.6 and 17:53.7.
“We knew our top three would be up close to the front and give us low numbers,” said Eagles’ head coach Melissa Pletcher. “We needed Jae to come through and run under 18 minutes again, which he did, and we wanted Cameron to try to stick right with Jae, which he did.”
Pletcher noted that Alm, who missed a couple of meets with a foot injury in the middle of the season, came through with a great effort Saturday, helping Windom reach its goal of making the top five.
“Getting fourth was a super accomplishment for our boys, who have worked so hard to become good cross country runners,” Pletcher said. “To be among the top 25 percent of the teams who qualify for the state meet is something we can be proud of. It took a real team effort, like we’ve had throughout a very satisfying season.”
Freshman Patrick Green (144, 83, 18:16.1) and junior Daniel Green (166, 102, 18:45.9) were Windom’s sixth and seventh runners Saturday, as all seven Eagles ran the course under 19 minutes.
West Central was fifth in the team standings, 20 points behind Windom, with 186 points, while Section 3A runner-up LQPV/D-B was a close sixth with a score of 190 (10-20-34-57-69).
Minnehaha Academy was seventh with 201, followed by Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop (205), Lake City (209), Trinity School at River Ridge (227), Pequot Lakes (236), Mankato Loyola/Cleveland (237), Greenway/Nashwauk/Keewatin (257), Ely (264), St. Cloud Cathedral (360) and New London-Spicer (360).
While Van Eps, Freetly, Wollum, Menz and TeBeest joined LQPV/D-B’s seven runners in representing the northern half of Section 3A, Kennedy, Knutson and Murray County Central/Fulda freshman Justin Clarke joined Windom’s seven in representing the section’s southern half.
Kennedy, running in his first-ever state cross country meet, when out fast with a 5:05.6 opening mile, positioning himself in 26th place. He was 30th at two-miles (10:40.2) before finishing 34th overall -- 17th among the 64 qualifying individuals -- with his time of 16:56.7.
Knutson ran a very steady race from start to finish, as he was 40th at the mile (5:10.5), 42nd at two miles (10:47.9) and claimed 41st (17:01.1) with a fast finishing-kick, improving 69 places from two years ago when he finished 110th with a time of 17:37.1.
Clarke was 85th after one mile (5:20.5), lost a little distance in the second mile (97th, 11:11.8), but passed several runners in the final 1.1 miles, finishing 89th overall with a time of 17:35.3.
“Justin’s third mile was very good,” summed up Dominick Damm, MCC’s long-time coach, who ran on back-to-back state runner-up teams for Heron Lake-Okabena-Lakefield in 1992 and 1993. “He restrained himself well on the first mile, not getting caught up in going out too fast. Justin slipped back a little on that second mile -- out on the prairie loop where no spectators were -- but he came back strong going up the hill through the woods. After getting that experience, Justin (along with his several of his teammates) has big plans for next year.”