On paper, the Watertown-Mayer girls’ cross country team should be the heavy favorite to repeat as Minnesota River Conference champions.
The team won the title with ease last year, beating Belle Plaine by 17 points, and returns every girl from that squad. But as longtime head coach Rich Winter pointed out, sometimes girls’ cross country can be a difficult sport to predict.
High school runners don’t always get stronger as they get older. In fact, some have their best years when they’re younger and smaller, sometimes even in middle school. For that reason, one never knows what other schools might have coming up through the ranks, or how a team’s own runners will react to getting older.
“I had to remind them that just because they were conference champs last year doesn’t mean they’re going to be again this year,” Winter said.
Still, you’d be hard pressed to find somebody that doesn’t see the Royal girls as the team to beat this season. Leading the pack of returnees are a pair of the state’s top runners in senior Hannah Johnson, a three-time state qualifier, and junior Liz Miller, who also qualified for state last year. Both earned all-conference honors last year by finishing fourth and second in the conference, respectively, while Johnson went on to finish 21st at the state meet and Miller was 60th. Both are expected to contend for the conference crown and state berths again this year.
Adding to the Royals strength is freshman Lydia Fails, who earned all-conference honors last year with a seventh-place finish at the conference meet, and eighth grader Kirsten Klitzke, who earned all-conference honorable mention honors last year after finishing 11th at the conference meet. The performances from Klitzke and Fails bolster Winter’s point that young runners can emerge and change the course of a conference race at any time.
Injuries are also a major factor over the course of a season in an endurance sport like cross country, as the Royals are finding out early this season. Johnson and Fails both missed the first meet of the season, Johnson with a hip injury and Fails with a concussion. The Royals finished in fifth place out of seven teams at that meet, but Winter said it couldn’t all be blamed on the key injuries. He said his team needed to have better focus and practice habits early in the season, something he is starting to see.
“Even with (Johnson and Fails) running, we would probably would have been third at that meet,” Winter said. “They’ve been working hard in practice the last week.”
With those two at full strength, as they are expected to be soon, the Royals will feature one of the strongest tops of the lineup in the area, and they have plenty of depth to back them up. Seniors Kaila Anderson (22nd in the conference last year), and Laura Hertzog (33rd), along with junior Erin Sonderup-Hohenstein (26th), are all veteran runners capable of giving the Royals strong scores from top to bottom. Sophomore Anna Phearman also returns after lettering as a freshman last year.
Winter said his goals for the girls’ team this year are to repeat as conference champions and send even more girls on to the state meet. He’d also like to see his team move up from its sixth place finish in the very challenging Region 5A into the top three teams.
“The girls on paper should do really well,” Winter said. “They’re definitely looking to repeat.”
At the first meet on Aug. 30, hosted by Maple Lake at Ney Park, the Royals scored 112 points to finish fifth. Holdingford won with 39 points, Maple Lake (65) was second, Dassel-Cokato (84) was third and Litchfield (110) was fourth. Miller was the top individual finisher for the Royals, placing fourth overall with a time of 16:18. Sonderup-Hohenstein was 25th in 18:55 and Abby Hules, an eighth grader, was 29th in 19:03. Klitzke was 32nd in 19:15, Hertzog was 36th in 20:08, Anderson was 37th in 20:11 and Phearman was 39th in 20:32.
The team was also in action Sept. 6 for a meet at Rockford, when the Royals finished fourth with 92 points. Orono won with 44 points, Providence Academy was second with 49 and Spectrum was third at 89.
Miller finished as the individual champion with a time of 15:05. Johnson was 12th in 16:51, Anderson was third in 17:33, Hules was 29th in 17:51 and Sonderup-Hohenstein was 30th in 17:52. Hertzog finished 33rd in 17:55 and Klizke was 35th in 17:58
Boys’ Cross Country
The Watertown-Mayer boys’ cross country team may have finished fourth in the Minnesota River Conference last year, but the Royals sure weren’t far from the top.
Mayer Lutheran won the title with relative ease, scoring only 53 points, but Watertown-Mayer was in a pack of three schools that battled it out for second place. Belle Plaine (77) and Jordan (81) ultimately took second and third place, but the Royals were right there with 82 points.
With six varsity letter winners returning, including five of the seven runners who competed at that conference race, head coach Rich Winter and his squad have high hopes for this season.
“Last year they were fourth in the conference, but it was all really close,” Winter said. “Just one guy makes a difference. We lost a couple guys, but we have some new kids ready to step up.”
The losses to graduation for the Royals were Tyler VanWatermulen and Zach Sandquist. VanWatermulen took 20th in the conference last year and Zach Sandquist was 41st.
However, the Royals do return a solid core, led by seniors Casey Fails, Caleb Fails and Jay Boerner. Casey Fails took fourth in the conference last year to earn all-conference honors, along with Jay Boerner, who took ninth. Caleb Fails also earned honorable-mention all-conference recognition by placing 13th.
In addition to having three of the conference’s top 13 placers returning, the team has a number of younger prospects it will likely rely on, including Ethan Thonn, another junior and returning letter winner who will serve as one of three captains this year, along with the Fails twins. Winter also pointed to sophomores Jon Vouk and Mike Burns as runners who will likely be contributors this season.
At the team’s season-opening meet Aug. 30 at Ney Park, the Royals finished in seventh place out of nine teams with 152 points.
Holdingford and Delano tied atop the leaderboard with 52 points and Dassel-Cokato was a distant third with 105 points.
Individually, Casey Fails led the way for the Royals with a 17th place finish in a time of 18:41. Boerner was 21st in 18:58 and Caleb Fails was 26th in 19:19. Ethan Thonn finished with a time of 20:02, Austin Wandersee finished in 21:24, Wyatt Tatge had a time of 22:17 and Josh Oak finished the race in 22:25.
The Royals were also in action Thursday, Sept. 6, at a meet in Rockford, when they finished in seventh place with 152 points. Orono was the team champion with 23 points and Delano was second with 63 points.
Individually, Casey Fails led the way with a 21st-place finish in a time of 17:28. Boerner was 23rd in 17:32, Burns was 28th in the 17:50, Caleb Fails was 35th in 18:12 and Jon Vouk was 45th in 18:43. Thonn finished in 18:56 and Wandersee had a time of 20:02.
The Royals were also in action Tuesday at Norwood Young America, and will run Tuesday, Sept. 18, at Crown College beginning at 4 p.m.