Cross Country: All about effort, not outcome for the Cardinals
Willmar's girls rank second in the 2022 state cross-country preseason poll.
WILLMAR — Running to a second-place finish behind St. Paul Highland Park at the Class AA championship on Nov. 6, the Willmar Cardinals' girls cross-country team is readying for another long postseason run.
Ranked second in the 2022 Class AA team preseason poll behind St. Paul Highland Park, the focus of first-year head coach Connor Haugen is on his girls' efforts as opposed to their outcomes this season.
The Cardinals begin the season at 9 a.m. Saturday for the St. Cloud Apollo Early Bird Invitation at the Veterans Administration Hospital cross-country course in St. Cloud.
"I think we will have a phenomenal year," Haugen said. "We have no idea what other teams might rise through the woodwork. ... My expectation [of the girls] is effort, not outcome."
Now as current state runner-ups, the Cardinals have bulletin board material to look at everyday throughout this season.
"The girls know how close we were last year. A couple of them have their second-place trophy in their room that they look at," Haugen said. "The girls use that as motivation in hopes of achieving greater things this year."
The Cardinals return their strongest runner from 2021 in sophomore Lauren Eilers. She is entering the 2022 season fresh off a successful track and field season, where she placed second with three teammates in the 4 x 800-yard releay and third in the 4 x 00 at the Class AA state track and field championships on June 11.
Eilers finished in 11th place (19 minutes, 10.87 seconds) at the state cross-country championships and second place (18:40.30) at the Section 8AA championships during her freshman season in 2021.
An 11th-place finish at the state meet was "disappointing" for Eilers. She hopes to finish in the top-three this year.
"I am excited to see how far we can go as a team," Eilers said of her Cardinals team that finished third in the Central Lakes Conference in 2021. "We're really excited for the season. There's a lot of faith [in this team], especially when thinking about how well we work together."
Junior Hannah Quinn and Eilers' twin sister, Erin, round out Willmar's top-three runners. Both were also a part of the two Cardinals' teams that placed second and third at the state track and field championships.
"Hannah had a phenomenal track season and is really building off that," Haugen said. "Erin is remaining consistent to round out a top three that's going to be very fun to follow."
Juniors Jaidyn Flolo and Madi Engstrom also return in Willmar's top seven.
Seventh-grader Sophia Negen is currently in the sixth spot. Haugen she believes will "make some noise" this fall. However, the Cardinals' seventh spot is up for grabs.
Key losses in Willmar's lineup are Nina Dawson, who is now running cross-country at South Dakota State University, and Grace Haugen, who served as a team captain in 2021. Additional losses in the lineup are senior leaders Allison Mattson and Jasmine Singsank.
As for the Cardinals' boysm they overachieved in 2021. Willmar finished in seventh place at state despite a projected finish outside of the top 10.
Led by sophomore Sully Anez, who placed fifth (16:07.97) individually, the Cardinals' youthful boys team will not graduate any runners for two more years after losing four seniors to their varsity lineup that included Colin O'Farrell, who is now running at Minnesota State University-Moorhead.
"Our boys are definitely a wild card," Haugen said. "We have a lot of youth on the team."
Outside of Anez, some names to look for on the boys' team are juniors Brandon Zepeda and Fathi Dubet and sophomore Eli Heinen.
"I think we're going to have a strong team. I am excited to see what I can do at the individual state level — the goal is to win a state title this year," Anez said. "I think the team can finish top-10 in the state."
Class AA preseason rankings
1. St. Paul Highland Park
5. Mankato East
1. Isabelle Schmitz, Hutchinson
2. Olivia Goebel, Albany
3. Calia Chaney, Pequot Lakes
4. Luna Scorzelli, St. Paul Highland Park
5. Isabel Mahoney, Monticello
6. Natasha Sortland, Zumbrota-Mazeppa
7. Ella Dufault , Waseca
8. Hailee Zimple ,Zimmerman
9. Macy Hanson, Fairmont
10. Allyson Sample , Marshall
11. Ellie Moore, St. Paul Highland Park
12. Vivienne Larson, Benilde St. Margaret's
1. Big Lake
2. St. Paul Highland Park
4. Mankato East
6. St. Thomas Academy
7. Rock Ridge
9. Dassel Cokato
10. St. Paul Como Park
1. Alden Keller, Breck
2. Sal Wirth, Annandale
3. Emmett Wolf, St. Thomas Academy
4. Cameron Stocke, Rock Ridge
5. Emmett Gerres, Belle Plaine
6. Isaiah Anderson, Mankato East
7. Noah Mahoney, Monticello
8. Vincent Kaluza, Rocori
9. Charlie Power-Theisen, St. Paul Como Park
10. Owen Chapman, Orono
11. Owen Layton, Big Lake
12. Harris Gulbransen, Breck