PREVIEW: Panther Invitational

While it is true that today, September 7th, is a massive day for Minnesota cross country, there are two meets more massive than all the rest, and the Panther Invitational hosted by Tracy-Milroy-Balaton is one of them. With the weather a tad on the warmer side thanks to mid-70's temperatures and sunny skies expected around race time, runners will be advised to stay well-hydrated, and perhaps things could slow down a bit too. But with seventeen teams to be present on the grounds of the Tracy Golf Course, including many of the finest squads and runners southern Minnesota has to offer, you can still expect to see some big performances out there today. 

With so many of the top  boys who ran at this meet last year graduated, there will definitely be a changing of the guard, and any number of runners could claim it. The tentative favorite by virtue of his career-best time of 16:37 in 2016 (more than 30 seconds faster than any other runner from last year) will be Canby/Minneota's Anthony Wollum. He is also the victor of his first meet of the season at the Lakeview Invitational in Cottonwood by a healthy margin. But Wollum won't come in with the best time of 2017 so far. That honor goes to Adrian's Brady Henning, who dropped a 17:16 at Mountain Lake last week, which is identical to his season best from a year ago, so he's clearly already ahead of last year's pace. the same is hard to say for Pipestone's Michael Suda, who has a career-best run of 17:10 but has not yet run a race in 2017, so it is anyone's guess just how good he could be. Murray County Central's sophomore Justin Clarke is another athlete who could contend, with a career best of 17:14, and Windom freshman Cameron Alm could be the race's wild card,  having run 17:54 last year and 18:23 already this year. But it will be a trio of runners from our team favorites who might be the key athletes of the race. Christian Lietz, Andrew Huber, and Adam Koller lead the Worthington squad that the virtual meet projects to score 28 points based on this year's times, and 55 based on last year. I suspect it will be closer to 28, however, as Lietz has already surpassed his 2016 time by over a minute, jumping all the way up from Worthington's number 5 runner to their  number 1 runner, while everyone else remained steady. Expected to finish runner-up to Worthington is the Clarke and Nathan Everson-led Murray County Central team, scoring 72 points based on 2017 times, and then Pipestone, Redwood Valley, Canby/Minneota, and Windom are expected to have a very tight battle for third.

On the girls side, unlike the boys, we do have a clear frontrunner. In fact, I find it hard to believe that anyone other than said frontrunner can walk away with the win in this race. Murray County Central's Morgan Gehl finished 8th at State in 2016, and then 5th last June in the 3200. She has already run 19:12 in 2017, bettering her 2016 season best by thirteen seconds already. The only other runner in the field who has broken 20 minutes is Redwood Valley's Lauren Karnitz, but her lone race of 2017 (granted on a challenging Cottonwood course at the Lakeview Invitational where she got 4th) was over three minutes slower than Gehl. A whole slew of other athletes are hovering around the 20-minute mark for their career bests, including Worthington's Sena Uli, Pipestone's Angela Martens, Windom's Gracie Bucher, and Adrian's Moriah Bullerman, but I suspect they will be competing (in an exciting battle, I have no doubt) for second place. As for the team battle, it is hard to identify a conclusive favorite. Redwood Valley is the team with the best career PRs, and in a virtual meet using those numbers, they run away with 75 points to Canby's and MCC's tie at 100 points. But using 2017 times, it is Canby who jumps to the front by a comfortable margin over Redwood Valley, MCC, Wabasso, and Worthington. But the battle for second between those four schools could go anyone's way.