COLD SPRING — Sully Anez struggled on his first go-around on River Oaks Golf Course.

Back on Sept. 23, the Willmar freshman cross-country runner hit the wall when running River Oaks the first time this year, finishing in second place with a time of 16 minutes, 41.6 seconds.

“We raced here earlier in the season and I died after the first mile,” Anez said. “I wanted to get redemption on this course.”

Racing at River Oaks again Tuesday in the Central Lakes Conference championship, Anez didn’t hit the wall. He ran through it.

Running a career-best time of 16:14.1, Anez took first place, beating Rocori’s Vincent Kaluza by 24 seconds.

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“It feels good,” said Anez, who is the 10th-ranked runner in Class AA in the latest coaches poll. “I wasn’t really expecting to run with anyone. They all tried to run with me in the first mile. I slowly got away from ‘em.”

With Anez’s win, the Willmar boys have had the top runner in the last two CLC championships. Fuad Bashir won the 2019 championship. There was no CLC meet in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At about a mile-and-a-half, (Anez) took command of the race and decided no one was going to come with him,” said Willmar first-year head coach Eric Hjelden. “He runs aggressively; he runs hard. Those guys that were with him, they were going to have to earn it. There was no way he was going to let them stay with him.”

The Willmar boys took fourth with a score of 100. Brainerd won the conference title with a 53.

It was a tight field on Tuesday, with seven points separating second place from fifth. Sartell (94), Alexandria (97), Willmar and St. Cloud Apollo (101) rounded out the top five.

Willmar senior Colin O'Farrell (1771) leads a pack of runners during the boys' Central Lakes Conference championship race on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021 at River Oaks Golf Club in Cold Spring. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar senior Colin O'Farrell (1771) leads a pack of runners during the boys' Central Lakes Conference championship race on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021 at River Oaks Golf Club in Cold Spring. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Willmar senior Colin O’Farrell also finished in the top 10 with a sixth-place time of 17:02.9. Also scoring for Willmar were Ryan Kuhlman (19th, 17:56.9); Brandon Zepeda (30th; 18:27.8); and Kory Behm (44th, 18:52.9).

“We had a good race from our top three,” Hjelden said. “Colin was 17 minutes, right where we need him. Ryan ran under 18. It’s just our four and five runners (that) need to step up. If they run 10 seconds faster, we’re second.”

The girls race proved to be just as tight as three of the top teams in Class AA, let alone Section 8AA, battled for the top spot.

Alexandria repeated as CLC champion with a score of 44, beating Rocori’s 50 and Willmar’s 52.

“It was a dogfight, very close,” Hjelden said. “Just a back-and-forth race, trading places with those teams. It came down to just a few spots. Alex and Rocori ran really, really well today, and we ran well today.

“We had at least four or five of our seven girls get season-bests today by a lot. Our girls ran great; the other teams just ran a little better than we did today.”

In this week’s state cross-country poll, Alexandria ranked second, Willmar third and Rocori fourth. And all season, the trio of teams have been battling for CLC supremacy.

Willmar freshman Lauren Eilers nears the finish line of the girls' Central Lakes Conference championship race Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021 at River Oaks Golf Club in Cold Spring. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar freshman Lauren Eilers nears the finish line of the girls' Central Lakes Conference championship race Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021 at River Oaks Golf Club in Cold Spring. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

“We had our plans, and most of us did a good job today sticking with it,” said Willmar freshman Lauren Eilers, “but Rocori and Alex competed very well, too.”

At the front of the pack was Alexandria’s Aleah Miller, who won the race in 18:35.1. Lauren Eilers was second at 18:50.2. Emma Ecker of Alexandria placed third at 18:59.1

Lauren’s twin sister Erin also finished in the top 10 with an eighth-place time of 19:20.1. Nina Dawson (12th, 19:47.4), Lyndi Koosman (14th, 20:03.1) and Madi Engstrom (16th, 20:04.8) all contributed to the Willmar girls’ team score.

“Today was like a tryout or a practice to see how we are, how we’re doing our jobs and seeing what we can do better in our next meet,” Lauren Eilers said.

Willmar head cross-country coach Eric Hjelten instructs Cardinals freshman Erin Eilers during the second half of the girls' Central Lakes Conference championship race on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021 at River Oaks Golf Club in Cold Spring. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar head cross-country coach Eric Hjelten instructs Cardinals freshman Erin Eilers during the second half of the girls' Central Lakes Conference championship race on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021 at River Oaks Golf Club in Cold Spring. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Willmar, Alexandria and Rocori will match up one more time at the 8AA championship meet Thursday, Oct. 28 at Arrowwood Golf Course in Alexandria. There, the top two teams will qualify for the Class AA state championship meet on Nov. 6 at St. Olaf College in Northfield.

Tuesday’s finish provided some motivation to leapfrog either Alexandria and/or Rocori with state on the line.

“For most of our girls, it’s just finishing the last mile right now,” Hjelden said. “They’re running a great first two miles and that last mile is tough. They ran it well today but it’s just a matter of in that last mile, you’re beating the girls you need to beat when it’s coming down to a few points for the state meet.

“Every point matters, so we’ve got to work on being as tough as we can in that last mile. That’ll come with some of our workouts that we’ll do and a lot of mental focus as well.”



Willmar senior Ryan Kuhlman (1766) and senior Kory Behm run together during the midway point of the boys' Central Lakes Conference championship race on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021 at River Oaks Golf Club in Cold Spring. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar senior Ryan Kuhlman (1766) and senior Kory Behm run together during the midway point of the boys' Central Lakes Conference championship race on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021 at River Oaks Golf Club in Cold Spring. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar senior Nina Dawson prepares to go uphill during the girls' Central Lakes Conference championship race on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021 at River Oaks Golf Club in Cold Spring. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar senior Nina Dawson prepares to go uphill during the girls' Central Lakes Conference championship race on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021 at River Oaks Golf Club in Cold Spring. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Central Lakes

Championship

Boys

Team scoring

(1) Brainerd 53 … (2) Sartell 94 … (3) Alexandria 97 … (4) Willmar 100 … (5) St. Cloud Apollo 101 … (6) Fergus Falls 116 … (7) Rocori 134 … (8) Sauk Rapids 222 … (9) St. Cloud Tech 238

Individual

TOP FIVE — (1) Sully Anez, W, 16:14.1 … (2) Vincent Kaluza, R, 16:38.0 … (3) Thomas Ruhl, B, 16:38.2 … (4) Eli Hanson, Sar, 16:44.8 … (5) Joel Brault, A, 16:53.3
WILLMAR — (1) Anez … (6) Colin O’Farrell 17:02.9 … (19) Ryan Kuhlman 17:56.9 … (30) Brandon Zepeda 18:27.8 … (44) Kory Behm 18:52.9

Girls

Team scoring

(1) Alexandria 44 … (2) Rocori 50 … (3) Willmar 52 … (4) Brainerd 118 … (5) Sartell 132 … (6) Fergus Falls 155 … (7) St. Cloud Apollo 171 … (Inc) Sauk Rapids and St. Cloud Tech

Individual

TOP FIVE — (1) Aleah Miller, A, 18:35.1 … (2) Lauren Eilers, W, 18:50.2 … (3) Emma Ecker, A, 18:59.1 … (4) Laina Viere, R, 19:05.6 … (5) Elise Hofer, R, 19:05.7
WILLMAR — (2) L. Eilers … (8) Erin Eilers 19:20.1 … (12) Nina Dawson 19:47.4 … (14) Lyndi Koosman 20:03.1 … (16) Madi Engstrom 20:04.8