OWATONNA – Red Wing's cross-country program has had plenty of success in recent years. The girls' team clinched a state berth last year, and the boys' team is always near the top of Section 1AA, last going to state in 2014.
But the Wingers boys and girls going to state together, that's been a feat that happened just once in school history before Thursday's section championship. So when the boys became Section 1AA champions and the girls clinched a state berth with a second-place finish, it was the kind of feat that head coach Jesse Nelson has never experienced, as well as a feat last felt in Red Wing in 1998.
“It just makes it so rewarding because for how many years in 10-plus years coaching and not getting any teams to state,” Nelson said. “Being so close with the boys so often and finally getting over the hump four years ago, and getting over the hump last year with the girls. Now both of them, it's so rewarding.
“I'm just very happy for all the kids, the entire program and the entire school. This is good for our school and our community and Red Wing fall sports.”
At Brooktree Golf Course Thursday, the Winger boys, led by Tom Nemanich's third-place finish, secured a section title with 91 points, holding off Northfield (121), Lakeville South (129), Rochester Century (150) and Farmington (163). The girls, with Grace Johnson and Jasmyn Armstrong finishing fifth and eighth, respectively, helped Red Wing to 76 points, holding off third-place Farmington (100) and Lakeville North (101). Lakeville South was the girls' section champion with 68 points.
“Knowing we were the favorites, we had to come out and prove it,” said Nemanich, who finished the five-kilometer course in 16 minutes, 26.5 seconds. “It was good to get back (to state) again. … The last time we went to state, I was the youngest one. This time, it's nice to have all my classmates with me.”
Century's Antonio Judson was the meet's top runner at 16:10.3, followed by Lakeville South's Sam Moerbitz (16:24.2) and Nemanich.
The Red Wing boys were the only ranked team in the field (10th in 2A), which was the most nerve-wracking element on the day for Nelson, hoping the team wouldn't let up. But the Wingers lived up to the billing with Bryan Zucker in 14th place (16:45.2), Asa Beckner in 16th (16:49.5), Skyler Bennyhoff in 27th (17:05.7) and Jonah Leise in 31st (17:07.8). Weston Wyatt (34th, 17:12.6) and Tucker Wallin (48th, 17:31.2) also ran strong in the Wingers' pack.
“We were all staying focused on the second loop and kept (the pack) together into the last mile,” Zucker said. “We increased the effort in the straightaway and were able to finish strong and pass by a couple guys.”
Zucker continued, “The last time we made state, I was in seventh or eighth grade and I was running in the low 19s. I was able to look up to that group and know that would be us. That's what was going through my mind throughout school today.”
Like it has all season, the pack prevailed for the Red Wing boys as its top five runners were within 41 seconds of each other.
“Weston Wyatt had a much better race (than last week's Big Nine Championship) and Jonah Leise was solid today,” Nelson said. “Skyler Bennyhoff and Bryan Zucker have been so solid all year long and so consistent. As a coach, I appreciate that consistency.”
For the Winger girls, there was some doubt over who would get the top two spots. Lakeville North, Lakeville South and Red Wing were all ranked at 10-11-12. Then there was Farmington with a pair of top 10 runners in Anna Fenske and Lauren Peterson.
Fenske (17:12.6) and Peterson (17:20.6) finished 1-2, and packs of Lakeville South runners were coming in quick as the Cougars clinched the section title. From there, it was down to the Wingers, the Tigers and the Panthers.
Ultimately, Red Wing's depth made the difference in securing a second straight state berth.
“It was nerve-wracking in the middle with (North and South) having good starts. Then things strung out in the middle,” Nelson said. “Farmington had two girls in the front but our 4-5-6-7 made the difference.”
Johnson was the Wingers' top runner at 18:39.3, followed by Armstrong at 18:50.0.
“We weren't really expecting this intense of competition because this is a really fast course,” Johnson said. “It's really amazing. I'm so glad we all get to go and have fun (at state).”
Adelle DeSutter (19th, 19:29.6) and Tori Leitner (20th, 19:29.9) both finished in the top 20, and Grace Dube took 27th (19:48.0) to round out the team score. Also running for Red Wing were Elise Leise (33rd, 20:05.4) and Ariana Mollgaard (55th, 20:57.6).
“We're just so excited because we knew if we ran well, we'd have a good chance at getting to state,” DeSutter said. “We just have been working all summer and all fall long. For me, it's my fifth year and I'm just glad we could end it on such a good note.”
Nelson added, “How awesome a year has Adelle DeSutter had? That's been a highlight of my year. She's running by far her fastest times. I'm so proud of senior girls when they have the best times of their careers as seniors.”
Zumbrota-Mazeppa/Kenyon-Wanamingo also competed at the Section 1AA championship, with the girls finishing in 15th place (420) and the boys in 16th (535). The girls' runners included Skyler Jacobson (76th, 21:32.8), Lauren Berg (78th, 21:39.0), Tess Hokanson (87th, 22:02.2), Maddie Patterson (89th, 22:06.2) and Brandi Remold (98th, 23:04.3). The boys' pack was: Garrett Grove (105th, 19:55.9), Cooper Utley (106th, 19:58.4), Ben Erickson (107th, 20:06.0), Tyler Stene (108th, 20:32.1) and Ben Knowlton (109th, 20:34.7).
The state cross-country championship meet will take place on Nov. 5 at St. Olaf College in Northfield. The Winger boys will compete at 1 p.m., followed by the girls at 2 p.m.