Sunday, December 07, 2014

NXN: Manlius Wins the Title, Minnesotans Continue to Impress

The Wayzata and Willmar girls pose for a group photo.

While Manlius ran off with the top trophies, the consensus among the Minnesota contingent at NXN XC Nationals in Portland was that all the Minnesota teams and individuals demonstrated the quality of high school cross country running in the state.

For the girl's teams this year's race was their apprenticeship. Unlike last year when a veteran Wayzata team halted Manlius' almost total domination of the race, this year both Wayazata and Willmar were young teams where most if not all of the teams' runners were newbies to the NXN experience.  Jerry Popp, the Willmar team's regular season coach, had noted in prior interviews during the cross country season that the Willmar girls team had not even won a meet in seven years until three years ago.

At NXN they finished fourteenth in the US.  Tara Bernhagen took the team through the transition from the "regular season" through the "playoffs," and nationals.  And, as in the Minnesota HS season, the team ran as a tight pack and had "interchangeable parts."  If one team member was having a bad day, another stepped up to fill the void during the season, said Popp.  At NXN, it happened again as the team's top finisher was eighth grader Serena Monson and the team's leader throughout the season, senior Samantha Hanson was the fifth scorer.

Hanson said in a pre-race interview: "We just want to have fun and do our best.  We really don't know what we can do yet."  They were aiming to be somewhere in the top 15.  The difference between their pack and Manlius' was how fast the first runner in their respective packs ran, as the others would follow in a tight group.

It was a year where the individual entrants dominated the field.  Nineteen of  the top twenty finishers were individual qualifiers.  Thirty-five of the top 46 finishers were individual qualifiers.  Manlius' leader of their pack, Olivia Ryan, finished forty sixth, followed within eleven seconds by all five of the team's scorers.  Willmar's spread between their first and fifth finishers was nine seconds. Munson placed 108th.  Hanson was 118th.

Manlius' pack of five averaged 18:40 per runner.  Willmar 19:24.  Wayzata, whose pack of seven last year was just as tight at Manlius and Willmar this year, but was more spread out in 2014.  A minute and twenty-three seconds separated Anna French, who finished thirty-fourth, and the team's fifth scorer Samantha Lettenberger was 148th, three spots in front of Manlius' seventh runner.

Both Willmar and Wayzata's girls got out slow.  Willmar's slow start was in part due to their start position near the left side of the course, where the first turn nearly 400 meters into the race pinched those who didn't rocket off the starting line.  Wayzata's girls were impeded by runners in front who slowed to avoid mushy parts of the course.

The Wayzata girls "got off the line pretty poorly," said Jake Hallen, their coach for the post season.  As a result, Hallen said, they had to battle the rest of the race playing catch up.  French had only worked her way up to fiftieth with less than a mile to go, said Hallen, and she rallied to pass sixteen runners by the finish. French, who finished eighth last year "was having an off day," said Hallen.  But, instead of giving up, Hallen added, French adjusted her goals and finished as fast as she could for the team.

"I think they learned a lot," said Hallen, who was sitting near the Manlius coach Bill Aris on the bus drive back to the hotel.  He overheard Aris tell one of the other coaches: "The next season just started." Mission accomplished. Time to get ready for next year.  "Five of our runners said: 'We've got a Nordic(XC Ski) race this week.'"  said Hallen. After the race the Wayzata girls did a promo jump in a puddle of muddy water for one of the online running video sites and got into an impromptu "mud fight" with Davis, a team from Utah.  "We won that," said Hallen laughing.  "So we came away with one win this weekend."

In a deep field of top individual runners Alexandria/Jefferson's twins Megan and Bethany Hasz continued to move up the field.  Having finished thirteenth(Bethany)  and fifty-third(Megan) last year, the first year the juniors had run together at NXN, the pair used their experience and patience to climb to fifth(Megan) and ninth(Bethany). The pair had been up with the leaders at the mile, but when the lead pack broke away in the second mile, the Hasz twins didn't try to cover the move.

They slipped back to around fifteenth, but that slide didn't last long as they soon launched their drive for the finish picking off runners who had pushed too hard, too early.  Instead of keying off the field, they keyed off each other to successfully climb into the top ten.  It was a year of change for the twins. They changed high schools and coaches, though their new coach had coached them in junior high so it wasn't a tough transition.  the one constant was their routine.  They train together and race together, and that experience served them well in the middle of the race when they made the decision to be patient and wait until starting their drive for the finish.

Minnesota was well represented in both the individual and team races with only two seniors in the team and individual competition.  The State continues to make its mark at NXN and the stiff competition to even qualify for the event signals that Minnesota's impact on the event will continue to be significant in years to come.

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