The Minnesota State Meet never fails to provide us with four, 15-20 minute nerve-racking, heart-racing, and nail-biting races. Without fail, every year has new and exciting story lines, breakout races from individuals, and team victories by single-point margins.
The 2017 State Meet was no different. 256 individual qualifiers and 64 teams converged on St. Olaf to compete for the top honors. A big congratulations must be extended to each and every one of these 704 runners, their coaches, their, parents, and any other people who contributed to their success. Qualifying for the State Meet is no easy feat, and every runner has already accomplished something great simply by being there.
I have a few main goals for this article. I hope to give my thoughts on all four races, and offer a bit of insight about what it was like to interact with all of the athletes and experience the atmosphere of a State Meet. I can also give a bit of an insider glimpse into every meter of the boys class A race as well!
Starting out the day were the class AA girls. Emily Covert of Minneapolis Washburn was poised for an exciting battle with defending champion, Anna Fenske of Farmington. Building off consecutive 8th place finishes in her previous two cross country championships, Covert's junior season took off with a dominant win at the Roy Griak Invitational, catapulting her to the top of the rankings. Up to the State Meet she was undefeated, however Fenske continuously ran faster and faster times as her season progressed. A clear favorite could not have been picked prior to the race, and it took a course record, 17:30.1 from Covert to claim a four second victory over Fenske. "It feels great knowing that hard work pays off in the long run," Covert said, reflecting on her years of training and preparation for this moment. Over the course of the season, Covert has picked up a bit of a reputation for somehow being able to smile during her races. Running itself is very challenging, however forcing yourself to smile during it is another challenge altogether (for reference see Matt Steiger's and my own face at the finish line!).
The Wayzata girls, led by a third-place finish from Emma Atkinson, took the team title in convincing fashion over Edina, placing all five of their scoring runners in the top twenty places! These two teams will have another chance to compete against each other next Sunday at Nike Cross Heartland Regionals. Saint Michael-Albertville claimed the third place honors, the highest finish in the history of their program.
The boys class AA race had two clear favorites: Khalid Hussein of Wayzata and Acer Iverson of Roseville. Iverson entered the day ranked first in the coaches poll, however he had yet to square off with Hussein all season. Hussein was poised for his first individual State Championship after a runner-up finish in cross country last year, and a runner- up finish in the 3200 meter race (where he lost a shoe) at the state track meet. The two separated from the field and with 800 to go Iverson made a move on Hussein. "It felt like the time to make my move, and I felt like I could have taken him," Iverson recalled. However, Hussein's patience and experience won out as he matched Iverson and gapped him entering the final 200 meters. Hussein won in an impressive 15:22 while Iverson capped off an excellent season in 15:31. Luke Labatte, another junior from Rosemount, also finished an excellent season with a third place finish in a time of 15:40. Hussein is as close to guaranteed a trip to nationals with the Wayzata team as one can get, however Iverson and Labatte will look to cap off what has been a meteoric rise with a run at one of the individual national qualification spots.
Wayzata won another team title in comfortable fashion (without their number two runner, Grant Price), placing all five scorers in the top fifteen and running an average split of 15:50! After suffering a defeat to Great Oak at Griak, the Wayzata boys seem to have bounced back and will look to have a run at a national title come December. Stillwater, led by Addison Stansbury ran a great race after losing out to White Bear at Sections, and were the closest behind Wayzata. Edina, led by junior Max Manley, finished the day in third, but will be contenders, along with Stillwater, for a team ticket to nationals.
Tierney Wolfgram undoubtedly had the performance of the day in the girls class A race. As the defending state champion, Wolfgram faced intense pressure from the return of fellow freshman superstar, Grace Ping, as well as her younger sister, Lauren Ping. In 2015, Grace Ping won the meet as a seventh grader by almost a minute. Wolfgram finished tenth in that race, roughly a minute and a half behind Ping. Fast-forward two years and the two were set for another battle that many thought Ping would have a slight edge over Wolfgram in.
My team and I were warming up when we heard over the loudspeaker that at three miles, Wolfgram had a comfortable lead. In talking with coaches, parents, and other spectators afterwards, I further learned that not only did Wolfgram dominate the entire field, but she took the race out from start to finish and put her claim in as one of the top girls in the nation. "I felt like I was flying," Wolfgram said as she hit the prairie loop. Her time of 17:31 was a class A record, and just shy of Covert's record set earlier that morning for both classes (although it may be worth noting that Covert ran with a group whereas Wolfgram soloed her race). Lauren and Grace Ping finished 2nd and 3rd respectively (Grace appeared to be working through some sort of quad injury).
Caitlin Covington led the girls from Perham to a team victory by a single point, holding off the girls from Winona Cotter. It was yet another extremely close team finish involving Perham after their boys lost by 2 points and their girls by 6 in 2016. Not to be forgotten are the Ping's teammates, including Morgan Arnold, Aubrey Williams, Jennifer Lai, Fatima Mota, and Julia Greshik who ran very well to help carry the team to its highest finish ever. The girls from Annandale, led by an 10th place finish from freshman Emma Fashant, ran a very impressive race, finishing third after entering the race ranked fifth.
The boys class A race has been rather close in recent history. Last year I was able to beat Matt Steiger by a mere 2/10ths of a second. Coming into the race, Geno Uhrbom of GNK, Steiger of La Crescent, and myself were expected to push each other for the individual honors. Uhrbom had an incredible breakout season, running very fast times and defeating numerous top runners in his buildup to the state meet. Matt Steiger was more or less all alone down in southern Minnesota, but it didn't stop him from consistently soloing sub-16 minute times.
The gun went off, and as usual a fast-paced start ensued. Dan Wilson, of Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton set an early quick pace, which was taken over by Emmet Anderson of Staples-Motley. There was still a decent sized pack around the mile (which was about 4:54) including myself, Uhrbom, Steiger, Owen Keiser, Nick Meyer, Keiser Freetly, and Jacob Bright. Heading up the hill into the prairie section Uhrbom began to take the lead and Steiger and I followed. Crossing the two-mile in 10 minutes flat it was still three of us pushing for the lead.
The pace began to pick up as we turned onto the straight dirt stretch, and as we climbed the last hill that marked 800 meters to go Steiger and myself took over the lead. Uhrbom stuck with the quickening pace until about 600 meters and as we approached the final short hill and sprint to the finish I'm sure Steiger and myself were thinking the same thing. A year ago on this day we decided the individual winner with a sprint finish and it appeared that this year would be no different. We hit the finishing stretch and I'm sure at one moment I was ahead and at another Steiger was, but in the end Steiger crossed the line 7/100s of a second in front of me in a time of 15:44.8 (replacing last year's finish as the closest in meet history).
Video of the Class A boys finish from my coach Dan Ethier
Perham, led by senior Carson Speicher, reclaimed the team title after three years of finishing behind Mora. Saint James Area narrowly held off Mankato Loyola by two points for the runner-up finish after having finished behind them four times during the regular season, including Sections.
Looking back, only a day later, and having run my last high school cross country race for MPA, I can see all of the great things that the State Meet brings us. From exciting races at the front of the pack, to individuals running PRs, the State Meet gives us a platform to showcase some of the outstanding work that Minnesota runners do. For example, Harris Anderson of Math and Science Academy went from finishing 73rd at last year's meet to tenth this year! Katherine Berube went from running 27-minute 5ks last year to finishing 23rd at State in a time of 18:49 as Edina's #3 runner!
These are just two examples of countless different individual stories of dedication and hard work. Walking through the fieldhouse before and after the races, you can see a collection of student athletes who have worked very hard to get to where they are, and for me there is a sense of understanding between all of us because we know how hard each other have worked. The atmosphere of the state meet is incredible. You are surrounded by top caliber students and athletes, and there is a mutual respect between every person involved for how hard the competitors work.
I have to extend my own congratulations to every athlete who not only competed at state, but went out for cross country this season. The choice alone, regardless of to what degree you competed at, is highly commendable. There is nothing easy about running, and much of what you have to do is self-motivated. Thank you to every person I have ever competed against for pushing me to be better, and I will greatly miss high school cross country and all the people involved when I graduate!