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|Paynesville Press - November 7, 2001|
Young team develops its stride
When the Bulldogs were reassigned to Section 5A for cross country this fall, their coaching staff felt the team would advance to state. |
The coaches knew they had three stud runners returning. Senior Jen Hess, eighth grader Brooke Schmitz (in center, #182), and ninth grader Kim Hess (at right, #183) all placed in the top ten in sections last year. Plus, they would have more depth with an influx of new runners, which combined with a weaker sectional field to give the team a great chance at state.
"With Jen, Kim, and Brooke returning and moving to that section, I was confident we would go to state," said head coach Darrel Carstens, who has taken eight teams to the state cross country meet in his 29 years at the helm of the program.
Bulldog boys' team advanced to state in 1977, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1994, and 2000, when the team won the school's first team title in the sport, to go with the four team titles won by the wrestling team.
The girls' team had previously advanced to state only once, in 1991, when they finished 12th.
This year, the girls' team took second in state, the best ever finish by a girls' squad from Paynesville Area High School. But they might not have even made it to state in their former section, Section 6A. That section featured the eventual state champions from New London-Spicer and Staples-Motley, who beat NL-S for the section title and finished third at state.
These were the only two teams to beat the Bulldogs this season, as the Dogs compiled a season record of 121-3. The state meet showed how close these teams were, as the Wildcats repeated as state champs by 11 points over Paynesville, who edged Staples-Motley by eight points.
If all three teams had been in Section 6A, only two could have made it to state, meaning one of the three best teams in state would have missed the state tournament.
Ironically, the switch to Section 5A, while helping the girls, hurt the boys. In Section 5A, the Bulldog boys faced St. Cloud Cathedral and Crosby-Ironton, who finished second and fifth in the state. Paynesville took third in the section and failed to advance.
In Section 6A, the boys would have had to beat Montevideo, who they beat twice earlier in the season. The Mohawks finished eighth at state. In addition to Montevideo, the Bulldog boys' team beat five other Class A state teams during the regular season. "We had an outstanding season, both boys and girls," said Carstens at the welcome home Sunday night.
A fast start to the season
At Morris, the Hess sisters and Schmitz placed in the top 10, and all three new runners placed in the top 20 as the Bulldogs dominated the meet. They halved New London-Spicer's team score, winning 42-84.
"I would say the first meet was the biggest surprise," said assistant coach Rick Houske, who has been with the team for 22 years. "Half of our team hadn't run a race before."
In September, the Bulldogs continued to have the Wildcats' number, beating the defending state champs the first four times they faced each other.
The Bulldogs finally were beaten toward the end of September, at the enormous Princeton Invite (actually held in Milaca) and at home in the Koronis Invitational. Staples-Motley beat the Bulldogs for the team title at Princeton, and the Wildcats edged the Dogs by three points at Koronis Hills.
These meets were only five days apart and during a time when the Bulldogs were doing some of their most intensive training of the year. "Our focus was the end of the season, not that day," said assistant coach Todd Spanier of the Bulldogs' only regular season losses.
In all, the Bulldogs won eight meets this season and took second place three times, losing to Staples-Motley once and New London-Spicer twice.
The team focused on what it had accomplished and not might have been on the state medal stand. The team fulfilled Carstens' goal of placing in the top three at state and getting a trophy and individual medals. The team had a legitimate shot at a state title, but the Wildcats outran them on Saturday.
The two teams - from neighboring towns on Highway 23 - posed together on the medal stand with their first- and second-place trophies. Members of both teams worked out together before the season at a summer camp run by Joel Fenske, a former all-state runner for PAHS who went on to become a Division II All American.
Young, improving team
Kacy Nehowig, a seventh grader, is another young runner on this team who has shown great promise.
As the season progressed, the team continued to improve and grow together as a team, according to the coaches. "The last three to four weeks we've really come together as a team. Before that, we were more individuals," said Carstens.
"There's a little more team camaraderie, like the boys had last year," added Houske.
Half the team was new to the sport this year, and the girls have large differences in age, including three upper classmen at PAHS and three middle school students, pointed out Spanier. "That's probably why it took so long to gel," he explained.
Even without all its big guns, this team would have been a state team. Take away the team's two all-state runners - Jen Hess and Schmitz - and the remaining five runners would still have qualified for state, noted Carstens.
And all the team members made important contributions. Nehowig ran with the top trio all year, giving the Bulldogs four runners in the top 10 at six meets this season. She earned All Conference honors as a seventh grader.
Mayer ran consistently as the Bulldogs' fifth runner, recording five top 20 finishes and one top 10 finish. She just missed earning All Conference honors.
Flint was a consistent sixth runner, who didn't get a chance to impact the team score because of the strength at the top of the Bulldogs' lineup. Until the section meet, that is."I never really thought the sixth runner was important, but I guess I proved myself wrong," said Flint, referring to her tie-breaking performance at the Section 5A meet. She beat St. Cloud Cathedral's sixth runner to give the Bulldogs the section title.
At state, it was Beireis' time to shine. She knocked a minute off her personal best time and was the Bulldogs' fifth runner at state, enabling the team to edge Staples-Motley for second place.
"Best race of her life," said Carstens.
So far, that is. The Bulldogs, while losing the best runner in school history as Jen Hess graduates, should be a state power again next year, with a core of young runners returning to the team and more first-year runners expected to join.
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