Future Champions Await In Alexandria

With Tuesday's Victoria Lions Invitational getting cancelled, this week's biggest Class AA action will take place the Alexandria Lions Invitational, the 45th edition of this race. For many schools, this meet serves as the last tuneup before conference and section races arrive, and this is one of the best course to get a confidence boost entering the championship season. Fast times are always run here, for a variety of reasons. First, the course is very quick. It takes place at the Arrowwood Resort in Alexandria, and is incredibly scenic and spectator-friendly. Competitors begin the 5k with two 1-mile loops around the resort's golf course, each of which features a short but very steep hill. After these loops, runners head into the woods along Lake Darling, where the path narrows significantly. With about 800m to go, athletes emerge from the trees on a downhill as they head to the U-turn finish in front of the lodge. The weather also usually cooperates at this time of year, and conditions should be decent again, with temperatures expected to be in the low 50s. However, there's a chance of rain this morning, which could dampen the course or cause it to get ripped up by previous races, and humidity is expected to be somewhat high. That being said, the final reason to expect quick times is the sheer amount of talent at this race always results in great competition. With a plethora of ranked individuals and teams, be prepared for plenty of epic battles this weekend.

10:10 a.m. - 6th Grade race (boys and girls)
10:30 a.m. - Girls' Junior High (3200m)
10:50 a.m. - Boys' Junior High (3200m)
11:15 a.m. - Girls' Junior Varsity
11:55 a.m. - Boys' Junior Varsity
12:30 p.m. - Girls' Varsity race
1:05 p.m. - Boys' Varsity race
1:35 p.m. - Awards

The boys race has both quality and quantity, with four ranked athletes and an astounding 57 runners that have broken 17:00 this season. It will also feature one of the most anticipated matchups of the season. With the Victoria Lions Invite getting rained out, the Edina boys will be attending Alexandria, and leading the way for them will be Max Manley. Thanks to his finish as the top Minnesota runner in the stacked gold race at the Roy Griak Invitational, Manley earned the coveted top ranking in the state. However, that ranking will be on the line on Saturday, as he'll have to defeat 3rd-ranked Acer Iverson of Roseville. Iverson owns two of the three fastest performances in Minnesota this season, and has had a spotless 2017 campaign. However, he hasn't really had a legitimate challenge over 5k yet, so this race will be his biggest test yet. Stillwater's Addison Stansbury, Iverson's conference rival, is currently ranked 6th in Minnesota and will look to rebound from a disappointing race at the Milaca Mega Meet. With two sub-16 times on the year, he'll be more than likely to. The fourth and final ranked athlete attending is Buffalo's Isaac Basten, who holds the 10th position in the polls. Basten is undefeated on the year (save for a DNF at the Roy Griak Invitational), and will look to break 16:00 for the first time in his career after he ran his PR of 16:02 at the Buffalo Bison CC Invitational last week. Like Iverson, he hasn't really been tested much this year, so it'll be exciting to see how he fares against such tough competition.

With so much depth, the field behind these four will be extremely crowded. Edina's Owen Gage has been on the coaches rankings this season, so he should be at the front of the chase pack. So should Chanhassen's duo of Nicholas Scheller and Torin Christianson, who have season bests of 16:07 and 16:16. Red Wing's Tom Nemanich has also cracked 16:20, while Keaton Gruber of Alexandria, Joe Hesse-Withbroe and Jack Degonda of Stillwater, Bonheur Mvuyekure of Sioux Falls Washington, Wilem Gokemeijer of Edina, Austin Streit of Mounds View, and Ben Vanderbosch of White Bear Lake have all gone sub 16:30, so they too should be in hot pursuit of the leaders. With so many sub-17 runners, there are too many contenders to name, and there will surely be some who have big races and surprise.

The team battle should be just as intense, with six ranked squads (half of the entire rankings) and one that received votes in the coaches poll. The top spot appears to between 2nd-ranked Edina and 3rd-ranked Stillwater. In the virtual meet, the Hornets barely edge the Ponies by a score of 66 to 70. With such a deep field, each team has little room for error. At the Milaca Mega Meet, Stansbury was only their 4th runner, and his team will need him to be near the front to contend for the victory, with Edina having a stronger 1-2 punch. Following these two, Sioux Falls Washington and 10th-ranked Red Wing are projected to each score 142 points, with Red Wing winning the tiebreaker for 3rd place. In 5th, 5th-ranked White Bear Lake has a very good chance at outperforming their rank on paper, as they haven't had a great chance to run really fast times. Though it would be no surprise to anyone if 8th-ranked Sartell-Saint Stephen broke into that top five, they could also be hurt by not having a clear lowstick. 9th-ranked Mounds View could also be among the top teams, but they need a more reliable 5th man to emerge. Perhaps David Dahl, who won this race a year ago, can rebound after a few disappointing performances to really push the Mustangs over the edge. The Chanhassen boys received votes in the coaches poll, but with Zach Long out with injury, they might not be able to truly contend for the team victory. And lastly, don't sleep on the Buffalo, as they just won their home meet with their top 6 at 17:16 or faster.

Though the girls race lacks some of the firepower of the boys race, it too should also feature plenty of talent. An impressive 28 girls have gone sub-20 on the year. The fastest time run this season belongs to Bergen Haag of Roseville, who had a huge breakout race at last week's Red Wing Invitational, running 18:38 to set a massive PR by 40 seconds. While Haag received votes in the coaches poll, the only ranked runner attending is Ingrid Buiceag-Arama of Sartell-St. Stephen, who holds the 12th position. Though her season best is 23 seconds behind Haag's, her All-State performance in 2016 suggests that she should give Haag a run for her money. After these two, the field gets a lot more crowded. The next fastest season best belongs to Meghan Pierson of Chanhassen, who ran 19:07 at her last race. Morgan Radel and Kaia Sueker, both of Marshall, have run 19:10 and 19:15 on the year, though Sueker owns an incredible 18:24 PR from NXN Heartland last season. Her teammate Natalee Sample also had an amazing race there, where she set her 18:11 PR. However, neither of them have run very close to that in 2017, but if either of them run near those times, they each could very well be in contention for the win. Sample is also the top returner to this meet. Buffalo's Amanda Montplaisir and Roseville's Samantha Kurkowski own identical 19:18 PRs, so they too should be apart of the chase pack. Heidi Schmitz of Willmar has the best experience in the field, with 3 trips to NXN, so look for her to run a smart race that might lead to a top finish. After two disappointing races, Morgan Dahl of Mounds View took 2nd in the 4A race at the Milaca Mega Meet, so she seems to be headed closer to her 18:46 PR she ran here a year ago. Also sub-19:30 are Maggie Blanding of White Bear Lake, Avery Braunshausen of Stillwater, Olivia Anderson of Chaska, Victoria Kolbinger of Becker, so they could be a factor. And finishing off Marshall's quartet is Nicole Sample, who holds a 19:29 season best.

Led by those four, 8th-ranked Marshall is projected to be atop the team standings, and by a fairly convincing margin. They win the virtual meet in an impressive 68 points, nearly 50 ahead of 12th-ranked Roseville's 117. Roseville is ultimately hurt by the huge 46 second gap between their 2nd and 3rd athletes, which makes them vulnerable in such a competitive field with many deep teams. Though they're only predicted to take 6th, the Stillwater girls are ranked 10th in the state, and won the Milaca Mega Meet 4A race. And the top ranked team attending is actually Willmar. They've been at the top of Minnesota over the past few years with multiple NXN appearances. Though they lost a lot of talent to graduation, they're still very solid, and just took 2nd at their home meet to Wayzata, beating the Marshall girls by 2 points. The Cardinals are predicted to take 3rd in the virtual meet in 125 points, followed closely by 11th-ranked Becker with 139. Becker's trio of Kolbinger, Allison Hendrickson, and Lexi Dehmer has been stellar this season, including leading them to a win in the Roy Griak Invitational Maroon Race. However, as they don't have an obvious lowstick, those three will have to have strong days in order to nab a podium spot. Lastly, watch out for the Red Wing girls, who haven't performed as well as they're capable of yet this year. If Jasmyn Armstrong and Grace Johnson, each of whom have earned All-State honors in their careers, can find that form, this team could be a force to be reckoned with.