Prep cross-country: Willmar hopes it has answered the questions heading into the state meet
By winning two section titles, the Willmar Cardinals go to Northfield coming off their best races of the season
NORTHFIELD — With legendary cross-country coach Jerry Popp retiring, new Willmar head coach Eric Hjelden felt the pressure from day one.
Among the large amounts of questions thrown at the new Cardinals’ coach: Can the team make it to state? If yes, how would they do?
The Cardinals’ boys and girls teams answered by being the Section 8AA champions Oct. 28, and now look to Saturday’s state Class AA competition.
The Cardinals’ boys team is slated to begin at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at St. Olaf University in Northfield. The girls are scheduled to begin racing at 3:30 p.m.
“Obviously, Jerry Popp is a nationally renowned cross-country coach. (I had) just a little bit of pressure coming in,” Hjelden said. “I give the credit to the kids and the program. They’re the ones (who) did it. I’m just really happy to be able to see them succeed.
“My job is to keep that winning tradition going and I put the effort and stuff that I could into it and I want to see the program and kids succeed,” he added.
The Cardinals’ journey to becoming section champions was far from an easy one for the new head coach.
“I’ve coached for a long time as a head coach or an assistant. I haven’t ever had the ups and downs that we’ve had this year,” Hjelden said. “The girls had a stretch in the middle of the season where we weren’t racing well. The boys, the last couple meets going into sections, did not race well.”
Hjelden says there were times where the season took a physical and mental toll.
“For them to kind of race well when it counted was a relief obviously. But it’s been very, probably more than anything, just emotionally draining, trying to keep the intensity and trying to keep the focus,” he said.
Heading into sections at Arrowwood Resort in Alexandria, some questioned where the Cardinals would finish or whether they would make it to state.
Willmar answered with its best race of the season.
The boys finished with a first-place total of 71 points, Pequot Lakes finished in second with 90 and Alexandria (95) was third.
The girls finished with 45 points, followed by Alexandria (55) and Rocori (62).
“The boys and girls teams had a pretty tough fight to win the section, so we celebrated a little bit,” Hjelden said. “But then we focused on getting back to work.
“I just emphasize with the kids that it’s not just that we raced well on one day. A lot of planning and preparation went into that.”
Hjelden says he felt some relief after both teams clinched the section title.
“When you’re the new coach there are a lot of questions that people have. So there’s definitely a weight that gets lifted once you make it to state,” he said.
However, Hjelden knows eyes will be on Willmar and how the team can do at state.
“There’s still pressure to compete,” he said. “It’s not as high as it was going into the section meet where you’re just fighting to get in. But there’s still pressure to compete and the pressure to do well.”
On the boys team, ninth-grader Sully Anez will be looking to close out his strong season as being one of the top runners in the state.
Anez won the section championship with a time of 16 minutes, 23.8 seconds.
“We were probably about four meets into the season when (Anez) just decided he was going to start racing at the front of races,” Hjelden said. “It was definitely, I wouldn’t say a surprise, but boys typically aren’t quite that good until their junior or senior season.
“He’s just talented beyond belief. But he’s also just an aggressive and competitive kid.”
Hjelden says he will be looking for strong performances from Colin O’Farrell and Ryan Kuhlman to help boost the Cardinals’ team score.
Hjelden said he hopes the boys can break into the top 10 as a team.
“The boys had a solid race at section,” he said. But we just need our four and five runners to step up and drop the time that they can drop.”.
For the girls, twin sisters Lauren and Erin Eilers will be the front runners for the Cardinals.
Lauren finished in second at sections at 18:40.30, Erin finished sixth in 19:11.80.
Hjelden hopes to see the twins have a breakout performance at state.
“Lauren and Erin ran well during the season, but not probably as well as they could have,” he said. “But they really stepped up during the sections.”
Cardinals’ Nina Dawson and Madi Engstrom will also be a focal point for the Cardinals’ girls team. Dawson finished ninth at sections in 19:35.60, Engstrom placed 13th in 20:01.30.
“Nina’s been just a steady and consistent runner for us as a senior,” Hjelden said. “That helps stabilize a team when you have that steady performance week in and out from her.
“Then you have Engstrom, who last year wasn’t really even on the varsity team and is now usually our fourth or fifth runner. She’s had a really strong season as well.”
Hjelden believes the girls could place in the top three at state.
“With the girls, I told them we can’t be overconfident,” he said. “You go to state and there’s obviously a lot of good teams. Alexandria is a good team and as soon as we beat them at sections the target returned on our back.
“We’re going to try and focus on finishing as one of the top three teams on the podium.”
Hjelden believes Willmar will be very pleased with its results on Saturday.
“We can’t be happy with just getting to state,” he said. “But if we honestly do the best we can when we get there and really compete to the best of our abilities, we’ll have some fun.”