COUNCIL BLUFFS — Two vans won't be enough this time for Council Bluffs St. Albert's annual trip to the state cross country meet.
The boys team is plenty familiar with the Lakeside Municipal Golf Course in Fort Dodge. After all, the two-time defending Iowa Class 1-A state champions are returning for the 14th time in the last 15 years and 25th time overall.
But the vehicle total will double thanks to a resurgence among the school's female runners. Like the boys, the girls finished as runners-up at last week's loaded 1-A state-qualifying meet in Treynor to earn a spot in the final prep race of the season. Low numbers had limited the squad's success since it last went in 2008.
St. Albert is one of 29 schools — and the only one in western Iowa — to send full boys and girls teams to the state meet Saturday. The 1-A girls race is set to begin at 2 p.m., with the boys ending the afternoon at 2:30.
“The fact that we're all going together makes it really fun,” St. Albert junior Krisann Stephany said. “We don't have to sit back and think, 'Oh, there go the guys to state. Have fun.' We're all really supportive of each other.”
Stephany was one of two Saintes to finish the 2011 campaign. She ran with one senior last year but suffered an injury midway through.
Then a funny thing happened this fall — she got teammates. Freshman Jacey Martin joined workouts and quickly became St. Albert's top racer. And soccer-focused seniors Emma Munger and Felicia Roppe came on and convinced others to follow. Now the ninth-rated Saintes have eight members, with a top seven also including Nicole Hilderbrand, Shelby Schultz and Miranda Jangula.
“You hear things over the summer, but I've learned to wait until practice starts and see who shows up,” St. Albert coach Bob Weidman said. “It's great that there's now a team for (Krisann) to compete with, to get on the starting line with. It just makes it a whole lot better.”
The fourth-rated boys go back without their top four scorers from last year, including state champ Josh Sindelar. But sophomore Max Ross has developed into the new lead finisher, with fellow returners like senior Gus Doll and junior Fred Hug close behind. Other first-time varsity members in the 13-boy group are Jeremy Sindelar, Lucas Luke, John Theulen and Tyler Hopping.
While none are ranked in the state, Doll said the Falcons have become better pack runners. At the state-qualifying meet, the top four crossed within 34 seconds of each other.
“Cross country is one of the most fun sports of the season, but it's business now,” Doll said. “The whole team is working hard and we know what we want to do. When we get to Fort Dodge, we're going to be on.”
Weidman said both squads have struck a balance between being laid back and serious. The boys still toss a Frisbee around before workouts, for example, but want to progress their times and placing between every meet.
“I think there's a little bit of pride in the program — no doubt about that,” Weidman said. “Each individual kid strives to improve throughout the year, and by the end of the year they're running pretty darn good. I see the improvement this year from pretty much everyone.”
The 1-A No. 3 Riverside boys will run at state for a third straight season after finishing third last year, and all five of the Bulldogs' current top scorers were in Fort Dodge then. No. 27 sophomore Tim Brink is the only ranked participant, but seniors Brady Ryun and Brandon Sipherd and juniors Adam Hartman and Jacob Vogel have also been key.
“State was a fun experience for me last year,” Brink said. “Let's hope it's fun again.”
No. 6 Boyer Valley is making its first boys state appearance, though only Chase Bonsall finished in the top 10 at the state-qualifying meet. Maple Valley-Anthon-Oto is making its state debut as well, with Derik Bailey setting the pace.
Also in the field individually from western Iowa are No. 15 Wyatt Schulz of Logan-Magnolia and a trio of Nodaway Valley representatives in No. 12 Shane Breheny, No. 20 Heath Downing and Brayten Funke.
“That was my intention in the first place was to stay in shape,” said Schulz, who does hockey and track as well. “I guess I'm here (at state) now.”
For the girls, No. 5 Griswold will try to reprise its 1-A title from last year. Junior and second-rated Rebekah Topham is eyeing her third individual state gold medal to headline a strong lineup of teammates including Alyx Flippin, Leah Lappe, Alyssa Wyman and Bridget Mauer.
“Our goal is to continue history,” Griswold coach Jane Challie said. “One of the things we've always said at Griswold is we only go and worry about ourselves. It's going to be about taking care of our game plan, and we have a good game plan. Hopefully we do our very best.”
Exira-EHK will be at the starting line as well, qualifying for the first time in recent memory despite the minimum five girls on the team.
Also in the field from western Iowa are No. 26 Destiny Scar of Nodaway Valley, No. 27 Michelle Mumm of Tri-Center, No. 30 Mackenzie Hulsing of Southwest Iowa, Megan Maaske of Woodbine, Megan Deist of Audubon and Charissa Mogler of Bedford.
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