NORTHFIELD — This November race was called early.
Unlike a year ago when the Stillwater boys’ cross country team had to sweat out the final results of the Class AA state meet, Saturday’s landslide victory was apparent less than a minute after senior Wayde Hall crossed the line as the individual state champion.
The Ponies turned in a winning score of 46 to easily outdistance runner-up Edina (80) and third-place Wayzata and claim the program’s second straight state title and fifth overall since 1995.
“It was pretty unbelievable,” said Hall, who placed seventh while leading the Ponies to a 23-point victory with 92 points a year ago. “It was just a great race all around, especially after finishing and turning around and watching the guys come in. The team itself was pretty unbelievable, scoring 46 points and turning out the way it did was great.”
Hall covered the 5,000-meter course in 15:21, which was nearly four seconds in front of Obsa Ali (15:25.3) of Richfield and Joe Klecker (15:25.8) of Hopkins, to become Stillwater’s second individual state champion. Luke Watson became the first to win an individual title in 1997 while leading the Ponies to the last of their three consecutive team championships that started in 1995.
Eric Colvin helped push the pace while leading a large pack of runners throughout the first half of the race and he followed in ninth place — fifth for the purposes of team scoring — with a time of 15:40.6.
Eli Krahn, one of three Ponies running at state for the first time, followed in 24th place with a time of 16:04.5 — finishing 24 seconds in front of the next fastest freshman in the field. The team title was all wrapped up once sophomore Bailey Hesse-Withroe (16:12.6) and senior Sean Bjork (16:12.7) crossed the line side-by-side in 33rd and 34th place — scoring 14 and 15 points on the team card.
“I was strictly counting Wayzata,” Christensen said. “I was counting where Wayzata’s runners were and when our fifth went by I started especially looking for Wayzata’s and I got to four guys behind our fifth so I was very confident we pulled it off. As long as we had the guys up front, which we did, there’s no way they can come back.
“If you can score in the 40s at our state meet, you’ve had a great meet, a sensational meet. We scored in the 30s one other time and there’s deeper fields now and a lot more congestion because there’s more people in the race.”
Stillwater was considered a strong favorite coming into the season, although a two-point loss to Wayzata in the season opener provided a wake-up call and remains the team’s only loss in the past two years. And while it may have looked easy from the outside, the Ponies had to replace three seniors from last year’s state lineup and deal with nagging injuries to Tayler Aarness, who was Stillwater’s fourth runner a year ago.
In fact, Krahn and Hesse-Withroe had never run a varsity race before this season and senior Matt Fronczak had never even competed in cross country prior to this fall.
Aarness placed 58th overall with a time of 16:29.6 — more than 20 spots behind last year’s finish — and Fronczak endured the first bad race of his brief career while placing last in the 176-runner field.
“We definitely had to fill in spots and it definitely got compounded when Tayler Aarness got hurt,” Christensen said. “He was a guy that if somebody had told me in July that you’d win state and Tayler would not be in the scoring I would have said there’s no chance we can win without Tayler in there to fill one of the spots. We were able to replace spots this year with new people that I never would have predicted.
“I figured Eli would be in the mix, but I never thought Bailey would be this significantly in the mix and be our fourth guy at state. He’s every single race solid and he never had a race where you had to hold your nose when you talked to him. Every race was great, there were no stinkers in there at all.”
It was a bittersweet final race for Fronczak, who has provided one of the biggest surprises in Christensen’s three-plus decades of coaching by simply working his way into the varsity lineup. The diminutive senior hit the wall in a big way at state, but prior to Saturday he had bettered his personal record in every single race this season.
The fact that he staggered up the final hill and eventually crossed the finish line on Saturday — even if it was more than eight minutes behind the second-to-last finisher — before getting quickly carried to the medical tent, is a credit to his determination.
“I know myself it was difficult and (Krahn and Hesse-Withroe) did better than I did at the first state meet. They just did great,” Hall said. “The key is just being in control and not being overwhelmed with the whole field and knowing there’s individuals who aren’t scoring so you have to relax, but the feeling coming down that last stretch is pretty unreal with everyone yelling.”
Stillwater had plenty of depth to overcome Fronczak’s struggles and the other first-timers ran like veterans.
“It’s a pretty big jump for me coming into the season,” Krahn said. “I realized I had improved a lot. It felt like a normal race until I started warming up and then I realized it was the state meet and through the first mile I was like, wow.”
The three seniors Hall, Colvin and Bjork also did their part to bring the younger runners along.
“They were a big help with just telling me about the course and getting me ready for it and being able to see what it was like,” Krahn said. “They were great leaders and it was a ton of fun hanging around them all season and it’s really helpful during the races. It’s just like training with them, I can run with them at the start and it’s calming. I’m really happy with today and it just makes me want to come back and do it again.”
1. Stillwater 46; 2. Edina 80; 3. Wayzata 90; 4. Owatonna 125; 5. Rosemount 152; 6. Bemidji 206; 7. Centennial 227; 8. Eastview 233; 9. Moorhead 274; 10. Chaska 275; 11. White Bear Lake 276; 12. Orono 298; 13. Chisago Lakes 327; 14. Elk River 331; 15. Mounds View 333; 16. Rochester Century 338.
1. Wayde Hall (St) 15:21.0; 2. Obsa Ali (Richfield) 15:25.3; 3. Joe Klecker (Hopkins) 15:25.8; 4. Will Burke (Ed) 15:29.2; 5. Connor Olson (Way) 15:30.3; 6. Joey Duerr (Chaska) 15:32.4; 7. Kevin Docherty (Cretin-Derham Hall) 15:34.2; 8. Brendan Sage (St. Michael-Albertville) 15:36.5; 9. Eric Colvin (St) 15:40.6; 10. Faysal Mahmoud (Burnsville) 15:44.5.
Overall (team scoring)
1. (1) Wayde Hall 15:21.0; 9. (5) Eric Colvin 15:40.6; 24. (11) Eli Krahn 16:04.5; 33. (14) Bailey Hesse-Withroe 16:12.6; 34. (15) Sean Bjork 16:12.7; 58. (24) Tayler Aarness 16:29.6; 176. (112) Matt Fronczak 27:06.3.