Proctor’s Welch, Esko girls win Minnesota Class A cross country titles

NORTHFIELD, Minn. –  Garry Bjorklund of Fort Collins, Colo., sent a letter to Matt Welch recently wishing him well at the Minnesota high school cross country meet.

Bjorklund remains one of the best distance runners in state history, winning the one-class prep title in 1968 as a Proctor senior and setting a Minnesota high school mile record that stood for years. He went on to become an All-American at the University of Minnesota and was a U.S. Olympian at 10,000 meters on the track in 1976.

Welch, a senior, made Proctor alums, including Bjorklund, proud Saturday morning by winning the Class A boys title in 15 minutes, 34 seconds for 5,000 meters on the St. Olaf College campus. Welch came in top ranked and undefeated and stayed that way with a ninth victory in nine races.

No. 2-rated Charlie Lawrence, a Foley senior, finished second behind Welch for a third time this season, 12 seconds back, in 15:46.5. It was the closest he had been to Welch.

“I was prepared for this, I felt confident and relaxed. This was my goal all season,” said Welch, the first boys champion from Northeastern Minnesota since Duluth East’s Nic Matack in Class AA in 1996. “I hoped to break the course record (15:10.7) and when that wasn’t going to happen, I wanted the Class A course record (15:28.8). I thought those were reasonable goals and missed both, but the biggest thing is I didn’t want to let my team down.”

He didn’t. In his fourth state cross country meet, he improved his 14th-place time of a year ago by more than a minute. The Rails, in their first state meet as a team since 1988, were 11th among 16 entrants. Sophomore Jacob Welch, Matt’s brother, was Proctor’s second finisher, 54th in 17:00.5.

The Esko girls provided a second victory for Northeastern Minnesota, claiming the school’s second team title and first since 1980. The No. 2-ranked Eskomos were led by senior Marisa Shady, fifth in 14:44.8 for 4,000 meters. She won in 2010 and was third in 2011.

“Last year we came so close (placing third) and we knew this was the last hurrah, especially for the seniors,” said Shady. “If you give it your all, which some of us have been doing for six years, there are no regrets. This is what we wanted.”

Esko finished with 115 points, including a 15th place from sophomore Kailee Kiminski, and Annandale was second with 150. International Falls was 16th with 302.

Top-rated Perham won the Class A boys title with dominating performance with 37 points. Esko was sixth, just one point from fourth place, with 201.

Class A Boys

Matt Welch wanted to play it cool through the first mile on a 40-degree, calm, gray day, perfect for running. Yet the leaders went through that checkpoint in 5:00, which was too slow for a course record. In going through two miles in 9:52, Welch was alone except for Lawrence.

“For the first mile I wanted to chase instead of being chased and then I wanted to take charge,” said Welch. “I kept moving up the pace and then with 1,000 meters left I made my last surge. That was the last card I had to draw. I found that extra reserve, but I felt wiped out.”

A victory over Lawrence at the Milaca Mega Meet in September sparked Welch for the rest of the season. He came into the year averaging 70-90 miles per week over the summer and is still running about 50 a week, sometimes training twice a day.

Proctor coach Lowell Harnell, a former state-meet participant for the Rails, saw Welch’s confidence grow meet by meet.

“He came into the Milaca meet wanting to know ‘How good of shape am I in, am I legit?’ He found out he’s the real deal,” said Harnell.

In the 2012 Minnesota Class A 3,200-meter track final in June, Lawrence won by edging Welch by less than a second.

“(Welch) is a high-mileage guy and has that extra strength,” said Lawrence, who has made a scholarship commitment to the University of Minnesota. “His strength is in cross country and mine is in track.”

Welch has made a recruiting trip to Minnesota but says he’ll visit other schools before making a decision. He plans to run in the Nike Cross Heartland Regional on Nov. 11 in Sioux Falls, S.D., and the Foot Locker Midwest Regional on Nov. 24 in Kenosha, Wis.

Class A Girls

The Esko girls has been making a steady march to a team title — eighth in 2009, fifth in 2010 and third in 2011. They couldn’t have picked a better time to claim a championship, sending coaches Jerry Zimny and Tim Lindquist into retirement with a victory.

“It’s not often that every runner on a team runs well in a big race, but they all ran well today,” said Zimny, with the program since 1978, said with a few tears in his eyes.

Following Shady and Kiminski were senior Kallyn Knutson (60th in 15:46.1), junior Erika Shady (84th in 16:02.6), eighth-grader Karlie Kulas (93rd in 16:07.7), senior Molly Meysembourg (131st in 16:42,3) and senior Mackenzie Carlson (149th in 17:19).

“I pushed harder than I ever have because I knew my teammates would be doing the same. We talked all season about winning this. We knew this was our best chance,” said Kiminski. “Everyone was ready and we all seemed pretty confident and strong and ready.”

No. 5-ranked Shady followed that plan. At the finish she collapsed briefly with her inhaler, for exercised induced asthma, falling out of her right hand. Yet, she recovered and was happy to celebrate at the awards ceremony.

“I’ve often thought about how well I would do in the sports I play if I just trained for one,” said Shady, who doubles with soccer in the fall, and basketball in the winter and track in spring. “But I’m happy with all of my choices. I’m completely satisfied.”

Blake’s Flanagan cut 17 seconds off of her 2011 winning time. She was 12 seconds ahead of runner up Emi Trost, a Cannon Falls junior, who ran 14:16.5.

“I was much more nervous this year. I wanted to defend my title,” said Flanagan, who has won seven of eight races in 2012. “I was more cautious because of the expectations. I feel relieved and happy that it’s over. Emotionally, it took a lot out of me.”

Class AA Boys

Top-ranked Stillwater, led by individual champion Wayde Hall, claimed the team championship with 46 points. No. 3 Edina was second with 80. Hall, a senior, won in 15:31.

Northeastern Minnesota finishers were: Cloquet junior Dylan Marvel (37th in 16:13.9), Grand Rapids senior Colin Cottingham (46th in 16:21), Duluth East sophomore Keaton Long (52nd in 16:27) and Grand Rapids junior Jake Avenson (123rd in 17:04.7).

Class AA Girls

Shakopee senior Maria Hauger won a state-record fourth straight title in a Class AA girls course record 13:42, breaking the mark of 13:59.3 of Lakeville North’s Elizabeth Yetzer in 2005. Runner up Wayzata sophomore Anna French also bettered the mark in 13:57.6. Wayzata, ranked No. 2, won the team title with 50 points.

Finishers from Northeastern Minnesota were Grand Rapids junior Erin Baker (62nd in 15:15), Hermantown senior Natalie Stauber (86th in 15:26) and Grand Rapids ninth-grader Jaylynn Lauer (94th in 15:28.8).