by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Elk River freshman Rachel Ness beat one of the state’s best runners in a thriller of a footrace on Thursday.
And more excitement was yet to come for Ness and her cross country teammates.
About 20 minutes later, the Elks learned that they had won the Northwest Suburban Conference team championship, too.
“Gabby Jung’s mom saw (the results) when they were posted on the board, and took a photo on her I-phone and came over and showed us,” said Elk senior Anna Haugen.
“We were jumping up and down and hugging, and we started singing ‘Eye of the Tiger.’ That’s been our theme song since (winning) the St. Francis meet.”
The Elks finished 1-8-15-26-31 for 81 points at Elk River Golf Club. Armstrong with 94 and Coon Rapids with 98 placed 2-3 among 11 teams.
Ness ran elbow-to-elbow with Andover senior Nicole Heitzman, two-time defending NWSC champion and three-time all-stater, all 4,000 meters along the copper-speckled fairways.
It came down to sprint into the chute that looked more like a hundred-meter race. Ness hit the tape less than a 10th of a second ahead of Heitzman. Both were clocked in 14:51.1.
“I knew I had a chance,” said Ness, who finished 23rd in seventh grade and 13th in eighth grade. “I knew I could beat all of them, from (running against them) in track.”
In the last loop at the end of the course, Ness made her move.
“I passed her on the straightway,” she said.
Heitzman, who has placed seventh, fourth and seventh at state the last three years, battled fiercely against her new young rival but could not quite overtaker her.
It was the first race Ness has won. She’s had four other top-ten finishes including second at the St. Francis Invitational.
“We knew that Rachel had a race like that in her,” said Jill Varty, Elk assistant coach.
The last time Heitzman didn’t win the NWSC, incidentally, was when she took third behind Elk River’s Emma Bates (in her fifth and final crown) and Abbi Aspengren in 2009, the only other time the Elks have won team.
Along with Ness, Elks making all-conference were eighth-grader Kennedy Warner in eight place (15:26.1) and sophomore Gabby Jung in 15th place (15:54.4).
The other counting scores were freshman Gracie Scheid in 26th place and eighth-grader Maria Brown win 31st place. Haugen and Aly Manthey placed 32nd and 37th.
“They all stepped up and really pushed themselves,” said Haugen, a holdover from the 2009 champ team, about her young teammates. “I am so proud of them …. We knew we were pretty good but I don’t know if we thought we’d be conference champs.”
This was the Elks fourth first-place finish in seven outings. They won at St. Cloud Apollo, St. Francis and Sartell.
Next for the Elks is a bid to return for the state meet in Section 7AA at Princeton on Tuesday, Oct. 25. The field there includes Heitzman and her Andover team.
The young Elks won conference even though their top veteran watched from the sidelines.
Chelsea Schlegel, a senior, placed 11th and 10th at conference the last two years, leading the team each time, and has run in three state meets with a high finish of 25th. But she has been idled by knee pain all fall and “threw in the towel” after running poorly the first two meets.
“I over-trained this summer,” she sighed. “I strengthened my thighs too much and it’s pulling on me knees now. I got a job this summer, at Nike, and would work eight-hour shifts, and come home and still had to do a run. I would cut them short sometimes. But I should have listened to my body more.”
Schlegel is taking physical therapy and hoping to salvage a good track season.
“It’s been emotional, very emotional,” she allowed. “My family and friends have been there a lot, helping me get through not running.”
Meanwhile, she said she’s elated at the young team’s success and trying to help with moral support. “I’m just doing it from the sidelines now,” she said.
1. Elk River 81
2. Armstrong 94
3. Coon Rapids 98
4. Andover 115
5. Maple Grove 124
6. Centennial 139
7. Park Center 179
8. Anoka 194
9. Osseo 199
10. Champlin Park 240
11. Blaine 356
1. Rachel Ness, Elk River, 14:51.1
2. Nicole Heitzman, Andover, 14:51.1
3. Cassidy Soli, Champlin Park, 15:04.7
4. Madeline McKeefry, Andover, 15:07.3
5. Alexis Fritz, Anoka, 15:07.8
1. Rachel Ness 14:51.1
8. Kennedy Warner 15:27.1
15. Gabriella Jung 15:54.4
26. Gracie Scheid 16:06.4
31. Maria Brown 16:18.3
32. Anna Haugen 16:21.4
37. Aly Manthey 16:25.0