Area runners race their way to State meet
November 3, 2023
Jack Riley had the moment he'd been waiting for last week, winning the Section 7A cross country meet Thursday, Oct. 26, and setting a personal record in the process.
"It felt pretty good," the Wrenshall senior said in a phone interview Monday. "I've kind of been looking forward to that kind of thing since pretty early in my career, hoping to get there. It was pretty special."
It was also redemption after a rough season last year. He made it to State then - this year makes three in a row - but was the last person to qualify, taking 12th place at sections after a sixth-place finish the year before.
"I had a lot of not very good races last year; I was having a tough time mentally," he said. "I think I was kind of burned out."
He gave his mind and body a break from running and did some cross country skiing last winter; then a new training program this summer brought more structure and better results.
Raptors head coach Brenda Knudsen said Riley made a decisive move about a mile into the section race, pulling away from the other top runners.
"He went for it," she said. "There is some pressure when you come in with the top time. He handled it well, showed that he was a seasoned pro."
Other top Carlton County runners headed to the state meet this Saturday include Esko senior Spencer Hipp, who finished in seventh place at sections, and Elliott Wasche from Moose Lake/Willow River/Barnum, who placed 12th. The South Ridge boys team took second place at sections, so will make the trip as a team.
Emaleigh Olesiak was the top Carlton County girls finisher, taking third place at the 7A Section meet Thursday. The entire Raptors girls team will be making the trip Saturday to Falcon Heights, as they placed second to South Ridge at section, so both teams qualified.
Knudsen said there was a little less certainty that the girls would also make their third consecutive trip to state, because it's a very competitive section this year.
"We were definitely underdogs to South Ridge," she said. "But I felt like Greenway, Moose Lake and Ely all had a chance. If my girls had faltered, any one of those teams could have gone."
But they didn't.
Every Raptors runner raced her best time of the season and a some set personal records.
Senior Brielle Simula was the top Raptors runner, finishing in seventh place. Fellow senior Ruth Sandstrom came in 10th, beating her personal record by 35 seconds.
"I think she surprised herself, but not me," Knudsen said. "I wrote little cards and told Ruth, 'You are faster than you think. You can run a 20:35,' and look what she did."
Sandstrom ran the 5K course in 20:35.50. Next for the Raptors was Sarah Cid in 18th, Isabel Riley in 27th, and Lila Dalen in 42nd.
The top five runners for each team score. Knudsen said Dalen and Lucy Stevens have been toggling back and forth at the fifth spot all season, but she told Dalen she "could make a difference" in the last kilometer of the race and the eighth-grader passed most of the group she had been running behind. Knudsen said all of their runners - even those not going to State - ran very well, rattling off names and personal records set. She had special praise for senior AJ Olesen, who had been injured for two weeks but ran a gutsy race Thursday, finishing in 59th place.
"He showed a lot of grit," she said. "He would normally score for us in the top five.
Conditions were good for the section race, which was run at Coleraine's Eagle Ridge Golf Course for the first time. Knudsen had high praise for the Coleraine coach who took over organizing the section meet.
Knudsen hopes the girls will run their best and have a good time at State on Saturday.
As for Riley, he aims to medal at State, which means he'll have to finish in the top 10.
"I think Jack will have to make another jump, but I think he can do it," Knudsen said.
The South Ridge teams - which include runners from South Ridge and North Woods - had a banner day Thursday with both teams qualifying for State.
"I'm just so impressed with South Ridge," Knudsen said, noting that her runners have a friendly rivalry with the team they've raced against so many times. "We know that Section 7A (South Ridge and us) will give their absolute best for the Northland."
The Lumberjacks are sending two runners to Saturday's Class AA meet in Falcon Heights: sophomore Evan Rothemal and ninth-grader Andrew Shepherd.
Cloquet head coach Chandra Allen said conditions at Hibbing "weren't horrible" last Thursday, but the Lumberjack boys were recovering from illness and a couple of the girls were getting over injuries.
"Every year the goal is to make it to State," Allen said. "The boys had a really good shot at making it this year, but Thursday was not our day. The girls had a couple of individuals who had a chance this year, but it didn't happen.
"Of course, Evan and Andrew had exceptional seasons," she added.
Allen also praised her team leaders.
"Alexa Shepherd had a great cross country season and ... is a great leader all the way around and a good role model," Allen said. "Calvin Snesrud and Gage Allen were our captains for the boys team. Gage and Calvin lead by example and are great motivators for the boys. They make practice a lot of fun."
With two underclassmen competing at State this year, Allen is optimistic about the future.
"We will keep working towards that [state] goal next year," she said.
IF YOU GO
The state cross country championships are returning to the University of Minnesota's Les Bolstad Golf Course in Falcon Heights Saturday.
For more than three decades, the championships were at St. Olaf College in Northfield after being at Les Bolstad from 1964 to 1990 for boys and 1975 to 1990 for girls.
"St. Olaf requested a break from hosting," said Charlie Campbell, a Minnesota State High School League associate director. "Moving to three classes intensified the lift required to make the state meet happen."
The state meet expanded from two classes to three in 2021.
The Les Bolstad course, which is near the site of the Minnesota State Fair, hosts the Roy Griak Invitational each year and has hosted the Section 4AA Championships. Campbell has said the MSHSL has a unique course in store for the state meet, differing from the Griak race in late September. The MSHSL will also charge admission for spectators.