Boys cross country: Ponies chasing second straight state title

Gazette photo by Stuart Groskreutz
Stillwater seniors Eric Colvin, from left, Wayde Hall and Sean Bjork lead the Ponies into Saturday’s Class AA state cross country meet, where they are hoping to defend their state title from a year ago.

The two most successful programs in the state over the past two decades are expected to square off on Saturday at the boys’ cross country Class AA state meet at St. Olaf College in Northfield.

Wayzata, which has won six state championships since 1992 remains the only team to defeat Stillwater — which captured the most recent of its four state titles last fall — in the past two years. The Trojans posted a two-point victory over Stillwater at the season-opening Marshfield Columbus Invitational on Sept. 1, but the Ponies have been ranked No. 1 in the state coaches poll for most of the season after winning their last seven races.

Stillwater has not scored more than 39 points in a race all season, including the 37-39 loss to the Trojans, while posting a 67-point average margin of victory in the seven races since that opening setback. Eden Prairie, which did not qualify for state out of rugged Section 6AA, provided the closest race in Stillwater’s last seven while finishing 31 points behind at the Chaska Invitational.

The Ponies have not raced Edina, which has gone back and forth with Wayzata a few times, but those appear to be the three significant contenders for the title.

“We’re going to have to score in the 50s,” Stillwater coach Scott Christensen said. “I don’t know what we’ll score, to be truthful. We seem to be able to put five guys in front of most teams’ second with the exception of Wayzata and Edina.”

Wayde Hall has won six of eight races this fall and Eric Colvin joined him in the top 10 at state a year ago. They lead a strong 1-2 punch for the Ponies, who graduated three runners off last year’s state championship team. The third senior providing experience and leadership is Sean Bjork, who was the team’s third finisher at sections.

Junior Tayler Aarness ran a superb race at state a year ago while placing 37th, but he has been plagued by injuries since last spring.

“We’re not only missing the talent of the three seniors (from last year), but the leadership of Tom Linner, Matt Chu and Ethan Anderson,” Christensen said. “Those guys were solid for us, and hungry, and came through when it was big. It remains to be seen whether these guys can do that — they didn’t two months ago (against Wayzata).

The Ponies have been bolstered by three varsity newcomers this fall, including sophomore Bailey Hesse-Withroe, freshman Eli Krahn and senior Matt Fronczak — none of whom had run a varsity race before this season. Fronczak, in fact, has never participated in cross country before this season and has increased his PR in every single race this fall.

“Wayzata is every bit the program we are,” Christensen said. “I’m sure they didn’t get any worse the last two months. If we were against an upstart, then I’d say I think we’ll prevail, but this is a Wayzata program every bit as good as ours.”

Christensen dismissed the suggestion that the narrow loss to start the season could have helped motivate his team throughout the rest of the season, saying he would have preferred taking a two-year unbeaten streak into Saturday as a stronger favorite.

“I don’t think that loss helped us at all,” the coach said. “It might have done the opposite and might have taken a lot of the pizzazz or hype out of the season. I just think it left a scar, but hopefully it also left a chip on their shoulder so they’ll run with a chip on their shoulder, but that remains to be seen.

“We’ve been to the state meet 18 times of the last 20 years and some years we have a shot, most years we have a shot, but this year we’ve been rated first most of the year and I think everybody kind of expects we’re going to win it. I’d rather be in that situation than rated third or fourth and just barely have a shot at it. By far, we’re the most capable team of scoring in the 50s and that will win it.”

Hall is also attempting to become just Stillwater’s second individual state champion in cross country. Luke Watson is the only other Pony to do so while leading the Ponies to the state team title in 1997.

“I think he’ll just be in that front pack and we’ll see what happens,” Christensen said.

Colvin is one of just four returning runners who placed in the top 10 a year ago — Docherty (6th), Hall (7th), Joey Duerr of Chaska (8th) and Klecker (9th) are the others — and could also join the mix for individual honors this time around.

Wayzata’s Connor Olson defeated Hall but less than a second at Marshfield and Richfield’s Obsa Ali outran him by 10 seconds at Chaska to provide the only blemishes on what has been an outstanding season for the senior. Hall’s last three victories have come by narrow margins against No. 3-ranked Kevin Docherty of Cretin-Derham Hall and other leading contenders for the individual title include Joe Klecker of Hopkins and Will Burke of Edina.

“Our team and myself have all the confidence we could have going into the state meet,” Hall said. “I think it’s looking to be good for the state meet.”