OWATONNA — The goal all year for the Red Wing boys' cross-country team has been to get to state and surpass last year's 11th-place finish.
Step one of that process was qualifying for state. And, the Winger boys reached that feat with relative ease.
Led by section champion Tom Nemanich, the Red Wing boys are headed to state for the fourth time in five years after winning the Section 1AA championship at Brooktree Golf Course.
"We have everyone returning (from last year's state team) and we're going to try to prove ourselves at state," Nemanich said.
The Wingers wrapped up the meet with 75 points, beating Winona (103), Lakeville South (108), Kasson-Mantorville (130) and Austin (145).
"We took a couple steps forward and ran a little better today than we did at the Big Nine Conference meet," said Red Wing head coach Jesse Nelson. "Some of our guys need to finish better at the state meet next week, so that'll be our focus."
With a time of 16 minutes, 12.1 seconds, Nemanich held off Lakeville South's Jack Otterson for the section title by 11 seconds, becoming Red Wing's first section champion since Bryant Blahnik in 2010.
"It was my goal to win. I won conference, so I had high expectations for myself and the team," Nemanich said. "A mile and a quarter, I started pushing it. It was feeling pretty easy and I was able to pull away from the front pack. After that, it was just me and the cart."
"Tom's done a great job of establishing himself as one of the better runners in southeastern Minnesota, in the conference and in the section," Nelson said. "It's been fun to see his development."
A pleasant shock came from junior Tucker Wallin, who placed third at 16:25.5. A week ago at the Big Nine Championship meet back at Brooktree, Wallin finished fourth but was 28 seconds slower.
"I didn't know I had it in me," Wallin said. "I was coming around the last corner and a couple guys passed me. But I just put it together and took them down at the hill. ... It felt amazing. It's been a couple meets since I (set a personal record) like that. I'm still jazzed about it."
Bryan Zucker (18th, 16:52.8), Weston Wyatt (16:57.7) and Asa Beckner (33rd, 17:10.9) completed the team score, with Skyler Bennyhoff (40th, 17:20.3) and Jonah Leise (52nd, 17:33.9) also competing for Red Wing.
"Bryan and Weston ran a very solid finish to their race," Nelson said, "and now we'll tighten up that gap between our number four and number five at the state meet and improve on that state finish."
Mollgaard sneaks into state
After the girls' race, panic set in. Red Wing's Ariana Mollgaard was in the hunt for an individual state spot, but her fate was dependant on how the team race finished. To quality for state, a runner must be on the top two teams or place in the top eight of the non-team runners.
"Oh, I'm really nervous," Mollgaard said before final results were in.
By the time the results cleared up, Mollgaard was in. By one-tenth of a second.
Finishing 12th overall on Tuesday, Mollgaard gained the section's final state spot with a time of 19:18.1. Right behind her was Waseca's Abbe Dufault at 19:18.2.
"I started out kind of mediocre but at the end, I wanted it so bad," Mollgaard said. "I'm going to do what it takes and not have any regrets."
Nelson added, "When I saw her with about a mile to go, I saw the look in her eye and I thought she's going to go out and do this. Very happy for her with how hard she's worked and how good of a leader she's been."
Having to fight off a foot injury in September, Mollgaard needed some time to get back into early-season form.
"I had to train and bike really hard every day and I hoped that was enough to keep me where I was," Mollgaard said. "That was a rough part of the season. It was unfortunate timing."
There wasn't any doubt from Nelson that the Wingers junior would return, even exceed, her previous standing.
"She's always been mentally tough. She's not a drama-type kid," Nelson said. "I never worried about her. It was a matter of her getting into the groove."
As a team, the Red Wing girls placed fifth with 145. The score tied with Lakeville North, but the Cougars won the tiebreaker using the sixth runner.
Farmington was the section champion with 79 points, followed by Lakeville South (91) and Rochester Century (101). Farmington also had a 1-2 finish individually with Anna Fenske taking first at 17:24.9 and Lauren Peterson second at 18:10.2.
After Mollgaard, Tori Leitner placed 14th at 19:22.1, Grace Dube 25th at 19:48.3, Sammi Chandler 31st at 20:03.2 and Jasmyn Armstrong 63rd at 21:04.7. Grace Johnson (75th, 21:21.7) and Carolyn Hanson (81st, 21:36.6) also competed for the Wingers.
The Class AA state cross-country championship meet will take place on Saturday, Nov. 4 at St. Olaf College in Northfield. The girls' race will start at 10 a.m., followed by the boys at 11 a.m.