PREVIEW: Austin Packer Invitational

Today at 4:30, the birthplace of Spam will play host to the 2017 season kickoff for nine teams out of the Big Nine Conference and Hiawatha Valley Conference. In addition to the hosts from Austin High School, the competition will include a trio of Rochester schools (Century, John Marshall, and Lourdes), Austin's biggest rival in Albert Lea, the combined Kasson-Mantorville/Triton team, Faribault, the traditionally strong team from Owatonna, and the girls of Mankato West. The individual competition will include at least two well-known names, and a few more that I'm sure will become well-known in the near future. The site of the meet will be the Meadow Greens Golf Course (which will also be the site of Austin High School's second invitational which will take place on October 10th), and with temperatures in the low 70s and a partly cloud sky, it shouldn't be an uncomfortable environment to run some solid times. 

In the boys competition, there appears to be great parity among most of the competing teams, but our virtual meet projections do reveal a solid frontrunner in the form of Albert Lea, who score 52 points. The Tigers not only return all their varsity runners from 2016, but each one of their top seven runners is a junior this year, so this core of runners still has two years to make a statement for themselves. Owatonna comes in second with 69 points after graduating three from their 2016 top seven, but if there is one thing Owatonna has shown time and again when it comes to their distance squad, it is that they always have someone to step up every time someone else moves on. In the individual competition, it is again Albert Lea who emerges as the favorite, as Carson Goodell has a PR nearly 26 seconds better than the next runner in line. But without a doubt the most intriguing athlete to watch will be Kasson-Mantorvilles eighth-grader George Gufstafson, who's 5k PR of 17:01 was the fastest of all seventh graders in the nation last fall. Austin's Henry Hinchecliffe and Rochester JM's Mitchell Olson also come in with PRs under 17:10, but with the pack tightening up significantly right behind them, we could easily see someone emerge who was not on anyone's radar.

On the girls side, the virtual meet again reveals a solid favorite in the form of Rochester Century. Coming in with four runners having PRs of 20:03 or better, Century is projected to score 50 points to clear the projected runners-up from Faribault by a total of 24 points. Century will also provide the race's individual favorite - senior and three-time State qualifier Aly Welch. Welch comes in with a career-best time of 18:39, and is coming off an All-State season where she finished 19th, and has already been ranked 10th in the coaches poll this season. But if Welch falters, there will be no shortage of athletes eager to grab the win. Most notably, one of those althetes is the Class A runner-up in the 3200m last June, Courtney West of Kasson-Mantorville/Triton (who was the winner of this race last year). It actually wouldn't be a stretch to call West the overall favorite in spite of her 19:08 PR and Welch's All-State pedigree on the basis of her stunning accomplishments on the track earlier this year. Faribault's Madelyn Skjeveland and Ruby Gernandt also both come in with career best times under 19 minutes,   Abigail Lewis of Austin and Autumn Muilenburg of Albert Lea will be in the mix as well.