by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
After a one-year absence, the Elk River girls cross country team is headed back to the state meet.
A young, deep Elk lineup, led by individual runner-up Rachel Ness, churned to a second-place finish behind Forest Lake in the Section 7AA meet at Princeton on Thursday.
“Last year, we barely missed it,” said senior Anna Haugen, who’ll make her third state trip. “We knew we were in the hunt this year. This is so cool.”
Ness, a freshman, took second with 15:05.9, about five seconds behind Andover senior Nicole Heitzman.
Eighth-grader Kennedy Warner placed 12th, Haugen 18th, eighth-grader Maria Brown 29th and sophomore Gabbi Jung 30th for the five counting scores. Right behind them were freshman Gracie Scheid in 31st and soph Aly Manthei in 37th — seven Elks in the top 37 among 110 runners.
“One thing special about our squad is the depth,” said coach Mike Niziolek. “When you are that deep, with your 4-5-6-7-8-9 runners of comparable ability, one of them can have a great race, and that takes the pressure off you … I hope at state, of course, they can all have a great day.”
Forest Lake placed 4-5-13-16-17, led by eighth-grader Allison Bartlett and freshman Emma Benner, to win going away with 55 points. The Elks had 91 to grab the second state slot ahead of Grand Rapids (113) in the 16-team meet.
The Elks were third at section last year, after section titles in 2009 and 2010 followed by first- and fourth-place finishes at state. This will be the program’s fifth state trip since 2004.
Nobody was happier about it than Haugen, the lone senior, who bounced back from a rough conference race where she labored to 32nd place.
“That one hurt a lot,” said Haugen, who had a back problem at that time. “I went to the chiropractor the next day and he said I looked exhausted. I spent two days in bed, which was like, Aaaahhh. It still hurts but I ran a lot better today.”
Warner and Haugen both would have qualified for state individually if the team hadn’t. The top eight individuals outside of the top two teams advance.
It was a chilly, windy day on soggy ground.
“There were muddy parts Mr. N told us to try avoid,” said Haugen, “like that last yellow flag, where a Zimmerman girl went down. He told us to take corners wider, to be safe. There are other areas where you can cut time.”
After the race, the Elks stuck little tiara’s in their hair.
“Cinderella,” Ness explained. “Our theme was, we’re the Cinderella team.”
Ness was running fourth until the last 100 yards, but passed two runners and wound up second.
In the NWSC meet two weeks ago, Ness dethroned Heitzman, who had also been conference champ the last two years. Ness won that race by a fraction of a second after they raced elbow to elbow the whole 4,000 meters.
But Heitzman fended off all challengers at the sectional, taking the lead about two-thirds of the way through. The three-time all-stater said she had “not been dong that well, this year” and was actually encouraged by the exciting race at conference.
“Once I got that, I knew I was back in it, and I set my goals high for this race,” said Heitzman.
The state meet will be held Saturday, Nov. 3, at Northfield. For the first time, the Elk girls and boys will both be running at state, as the boys were surprise winners. (See separate story).
1. Forest Lake 55
2. Elk River 91
3. Grand Rapids 113
4. Andover 122
5. Duluth East 133
6. Big Lake 146
7. North Branch 174
8. Chisago Lakes 220
9. Princeton 228
10. Hermantown 275
11. St. Francis 301
12. Zimmerman 344
13. Cloquet 391
14. Duluth Denfeld 396
15. Cambridge-Isanti 400
16. Hibbing 408
Top ten individuals
1. Nicole Heitzman, Andover, 15:01.0
2. Rachel Ness, Elk River, 15:05.9
3. Rhianna Rinke, North Branch, 15:06.5
4. Allison Bartlett, Forest Lake, 15:07.7
5. Emma Benner, Forest Lake, 15:09.5
6. Jaylynn Lauer, Grand Rapids, 15:09.9
7. Natalie Stauber, Hermantown, 15:20.1
8. Erin Baker, Grand Rapids, 15:24.6
9. Madeline McKeefry, Andover, 15:26.4
10. Abbie Forsman, Chisago Lakes, 15:27.4
12. Kennedy Warner 15:43.8
18. Anna Haugen 16:03.9
29. Maria Brown 16:23.5
30. Gabriela Jung 16:24.8
31. Gracie Scheid 16:25.2
37. Ali Manthey 16:31.4